Cool perks

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If you've dreamed of being independently wealthy and never having to work again in your life, welcome back to reality. Holding a job is a necessary evil for most of us, but it doesn't have to be all about drudgery, does it? Employees at these Maryland businesses may not think so. But those who do should be placated by the cool perks their employers offer to make the balance between working and living a little more equitable.

Organization: American Hiking Society, Silver Spring
Perk: Canine coworkers

Dog fights are rare and Frisbee-tossing is common at this hiking trail advocacy and conservation association, where almost all seven employees bring their dogs to work daily. Instead of worrying about Fido being lonely, bored and possibly mischievous at home, employees have faithful companions to tag along on walks to the copy machine. Trail programs manager Jane Thompson says the dogs add entertainment, not distraction, to office life. "It's a nice break for us to take them out to the courtyard to play," she says. "And of course, the dogs love all the extra attention."

The canine sidekicks are well-trained and stay in their owners' offices. Sometimes, when a new pooch comes on board, he or she will need a few days to acclimate to office politics. "We recently had a new terrier who wanted to wander," Thompson says. "We just put a barrier up to keep her in the office. We're pretty relaxed here."

Organization: The Baltimore Orioles
Perk: All the home games you can swing

Being an accountant might sound boring at times. Being an accountant for a major-league baseball team could be a little more exciting. Once you realize that if you work as an accountant (or hold any other full-time job with the Orioles organization), you're entitled to two free tickets to every home game, however, debits and credits become strangely scintillating.

Employees use a computerized sign-up sheet to pick the games they want to attend. Several sections are set aside for each game and employees receive tickets based on their seniority.

Director of Public Relations Bill Stetka says that any employee who doesn't have game-day duties can request tickets. "We're not talking about a lot of tickets," he says. "We have fewer than 100 full-time employees." Part-time employees can get tickets, too, but only for select games throughout the season.

Organization: Calvert Group, Bethesda
Perk: Getting freed to do good deeds

An internal wholesaler for this socially responsible mutual fund company, David McClellan spends most of his time networking with financial advisors and brokers. But once a month, thanks to Calvert's community service benefit, he nurtures his benevolent side by organizing clothing drives, leading fund-raisers for non-profit groups or managing various other community-oriented activities

Calvert gives its employees 12 days off each year specifically to volunteer in the community. Some employees participate in events organized by the Calvert Community Partners Committee, on which McClellan serves. Others volunteer at their children's schools or with an organization of their choice. McClellan once strung together five community service days to attend a training conference for his church. "It's a great benefit," he says. "Doing this kind of community work can be a great stress-reliever, and it makes working here even more fulfilling."

Organization: Enlight, Parkville
Perk: Work is all play

As if work isn't fun enough when you create and market games with names like "Nemesis of the Roman Empire" and "Seven Kingdoms: Ancient Adversaries." But every year the folks who work at the North American publishing division of this Hong Kong-based entertainment software developer travel to high-profile conferences where they show off their new games, check out competitors' products, rub elbows with celebrities like Jennifer Love Hewitt, and attend concerts by popular bands like Smash Mouth.

Spokesperson Jessica Tew says the highlight for Enlight employees is the annual Electronics Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the largest conference in the world for the $15 billion electronic gaming industry. "It's a big hoopla," she says. "Celebrities come out, companies unveil the newest games to hit the retail market, and there are lots and lots of parties," she says. Who says work and play don't mix?

Organization: Goucher College, Baltimore
Perk: A free degree

It takes some families years to save for -- and pay off debts on -- something that children of Goucher College employees can get for free. As long as they meet admissions requirements, dependent children of full-time employees can take courses at Goucher without forking over one dime of the $24,150 tuition (2003). Goucher covers tuition in full for up to five years, giving students sufficient time to earn a bachelor's degree.

About 6 percent of full-time employees have a dependant enrolled at Goucher, says Debbie Lupton, director of human resources. Among them is Dawn Luciano, who says the tuition benefit for her son, Domenic, is "like a windfall." "It's the most fantastic benefit anyone can have, especially because the small class size and personal attention at Goucher really suit him," she says.

Employees receive free tuition, too. Lupton says approximately 15 to 18 take classes each semester.

Organization: Integrated Systems, Inc., Lanham
Perk: All-expenses-paid luxury vacations

If you'd worked at Integrated Systems, Inc. (ISI) since 1998, like Staci Schmidt has, you'd have visited Disney World, South Beach, Las Vegas, the Caribbean and New Orleans by now, without paying for much more than the souvenirs you took home.

Schmidt, a public relations representative, says ISI, which builds satellite ground systems, takes its employees on a four-day, expenses-paid trip every year and has done so since its founding in 1982. "It's never been an option not to have the trip," she says. "It's just as natural to us as having your 401(k) or health insurance."

Employees typically pay $100 to reserve a space. ISI foots the bill for airfare, accommodations at a four-star resort (such as Luxor Las Vegas and the all-inclusive Resort Melia Caribe Tropical in the Dominican Republic), meals, drinks and other special activities, like a riverboat cruise in New Orleans. Spouses, relatives and friends willing to pay their own way can join the fun, and many do. "We get tremendous participation," says Schmidt. "Employees say they look forward to it every year."

Organization: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
Perk: Bargain-basement health club membership

For faculty and staff at Johns Hopkins, a yearly membership to the campus' gleaming new fitness center is $90. That's the cost of a yearly membership, not the sign-up fee, monthly fee or towel rental charge. That's $90 for 12 months of exercise, meaning a Hopkins employee can stay in shape for about 25 cents a day. For another $90, spouses can join, too.

This isn't some smelly training room with a few hand-me-down free weights from alumnus New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's basement, either. We're talking about the spacious Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center, which opened in January 2002 and features a gaggle of treadmills, cross-trainers, bikes and rowing ergometers (all rigged so you can plug in your headphones and watch television while you work out); a 2,500-square-foot weight room; a rock-climbing wall; multi-sport courts; group fitness classes and two pools. Orange-shirted personal trainers roam the fitness areas during busy hours to answer questions and offer assistance. Even the operating hours put other health clubs to shame: It's open from 6 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.

Organization: Robert Rytter & Associates, Butler
Perk: Weekly happy hour

Clients of this small graphic design firm know better than to call after 4 p.m. on Fridays. By then, the staff is far away from the ringing phone. Instead, they're unwinding with their favorite libations, which company president Robert Rytter purchases at the small but well-stocked liquor store next door. Sometimes, he says, the drink selections reflect what kind of week he and his 12 full- and part-time employees had. "For a while there, it was all about shots."

Rytter started hosting the weekly ritual when he opened the company 14 years ago. "It's like an exhale -- I think it is therapeutic to kick back and say 'enough of this, let's party!'" The camaraderie at Rytter doesn't end with happy hour: the staff also has a monthly book club, frequent "brown bag swap" lunch days, and barbecues on the back porch.

Organization: Sylvan Learning Systems, Inc., Baltimore
Perk: Take a co-worker to lunch, on us

Receiving a heartfelt "thank you" for a job well done is gratifying, but being treated to lunch is even better. The human resources folks at Sylvan know this, and they encourage employees to treat each other to lunch by offering to pick up the tab. Each of the 120 employees at Sylvan's Baltimore headquarters can treat other employees to lunch twice a year, and the company will reimburse them up to $25 each time. With so many Fells Point and Little Italy eateries within walking distance, thankers and thankees have plenty of choices for a satisfying and affordable meal. The free lunches are one of several employee recognition programs and monotony-breakers the company offers.

"This is a small office, and it takes every person to get done what we need to get done," says Barbara O'Brien, vice president of human resources. "We want our employees to feel involved and appreciated."

Organization: T. Rowe Price, Baltimore and Owings Mills
Perk: Money and time off for adoptive families

When Sharon Fitzmaurice brought her adopted daughter, Reilly, home from China in November 2001, she was exhausted, ecstatic and looking at a depleted savings account. Luckily, she wasn't due back to her job as a human resources manager for several weeks, and she could count on her employer to offset some of the adoption-related expenses.

Once every two years, T. Rowe Price will reimburse employees up to $3,000 for travel expenses, legal fees, agency fees and other adoption-related expenses. Adoptive parents also receive the same time-off benefits provided by traditional maternity and paternity leave guidelines -- about six weeks.

"We wanted to impact people who could not take advantage of maternity health benefits and leave time as they were developing their families," says corporate benefits manager Randall Singer.

Fitzmaurice says representatives of the New York adoption agency that facilitated Reilly's adoption were "astonished" by the support she received from T. Rowe Price. "I'm a single mother working full time," she says. "I couldn't have adopted Reilly without this program."

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