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The Perfect Package

What would constitute an ideal benefits plan? Flexibility, among other things.

September 15, 1997|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It doesn't matter what you do, who you are, how refined your skills. You really want to quit your job and go to work for this company.

You say you're an accountant? Ruth E.'s Baggs Inc., creator of fine leather goods for the discriminating woman and man, has the perfect job for you. You teach preschool? Leave those kids behind. Nursing's your gig? Come on down.

"Why?" you ask? The answer is simple: The Baggs company offers its happy employees the very best benefits package in the working world. If you have to work, you want to do it here. This place offers benefits with a capital B.

That's the upside. The downside is that while many companies offer generous benefits packages, to craft the perfect one--from a worker's standpoint--we had to make this company up. But an American worker can dream, can't she?

So what makes an ideal benefits package? Flexibility, for starters. Not every employee wants a fat health plan, where he can choose the doctor and the company pays for everything. Some people would rather have bare-bones coverage and get money back from their employer. Not everyone needs child care; but the people who do really, really do.

Most medium to large American companies at the very least offer their workers some form of health insurance and pension. But in this era of rampant cost-cutting and preference for younger workers--who tend to think more about fun today and less about retirement and infirmity tomorrow--bare-bones managed care is on the upswing, and generous pensions are beginning to disappear.

"The ideal benefits package would have the ability to meet diverse employees' needs," says Jeffrey Everson, a client relationship manager at William M. Mercer Inc., the world's largest human resources company. "That's the key. It would include several types of health plans . . . [and] flexible levels of life insurance."

At imaginary Ruth E.'s Baggs, where the benefits package is as supple as the leather used to make its tony totes, flexibility also extends to time off, a benefit that workers find increasingly appealing in this time of two-career families.

"Having interviewed hundreds of people over many years, increasingly people are more concerned about time than money," says Robert Levering, co-author of "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America" and founder of Great Place to Work Institute in San Francisco. "Benefits packages that accommodate that are probably going to be more appealing than ever right now."

One trend in corporate America is for companies to combine vacation and sick time into one fund that workers can dip into however they wish. Vacation buying and selling is also on the upswing.

Ruth E.'s Baggs patterns its time-off policies after Anheuser-Busch Cos., where vacation is generous. After 15 years, union brewery workers at Anheuser-Busch get seven weeks of paid time off, according to Levering's book, which was updated in 1994. Everyone at Anheuser-Busch gets 16 paid holidays--the average in corporate America is six to seven--and six paid sick days each year.

Like Hewlett-Packard, Ruth E.'s Baggs combines sick leave and vacation into one account and lets workers use that time off in whatever way they wish. That way, healthy workers are not penalized for showing up every day.

While such a generous policy has worked for years at Ruth E.'s Baggs, company officials are considering revamping the program to look a little bit more like that offered at human-resources giant Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

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At WWW, says actuary Keith Grassel, all employees get a minimum allotment of time off based on service to the company. Then, workers get the money to buy one more week off. If they don't want it, they use the amount to defray the cost of other benefits.

In addition, workers then get the chance to buy yet another week off out of their own pockets, paying for it through direct withdrawals from their paychecks spread over an entire year.

"The ability to purchase paid time off is good," Grassel says, "and typically the company doesn't mind. They pay out a little less in pay. It's a good example of taking the traditional benefits programs and modernizing them to accommodate lifestyles which are bewilderingly diverse."

Ruth E.'s Baggs, which likes to think of itself as a purveyor of high-tech handbags, also takes a page out of Silicon Valley's management handbook by offering its workers paid sabbaticals.

Baggs has an innovative, two-tier sabbatical program, loosely styled after one Sunnyvale, Calif., firm with which Grassel had worked. For the higher-paid professional staff members, who tend to have more disposable income, Baggs offers six weeks paid sabbatical every five years.

For hourly production workers, who make less money, Baggs offers two extra paid weeks off and $3,000 in spending money. The one caveat: You have to prove that you're using it for vacation.

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