Yes, some employers do provide generous employee benefits

You might never have heard of U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention in Rockville, but after reading this you likely will want to work there.

The scientific nonprofit, which sets standards for drug production and quality in the United States, was recently recognized by the Principal Financial Group as one of the 10 "best companies for employee financial security."

The organization's benefits package includes a 10 percent annual contribution to workers' 401(k)s, up to $10,000 in yearly tuition assistance, and health and dental plan options in which the employer pays 100 percent of the premiums for workers and their families.

"Once we hire a person, we want to retain them," says Brian Hendrix, USP's chief operating officer. "Benefits help us do that."

No kidding. Benefits experts are so impressed by USP's perks that some jokingly asked if the nonprofit had any job openings.

Plenty of employers say workers are their most valuable asset. But when times get tough, companies look first to cutting their largest expenses, which are often employee benefits. As open enrollment time approaches, many workers will continue to feel the pinch that a weak economy and escalating health costs have had on their benefits.

Medical premiums next year will likely go up 7 percent to 8 percent for workers, and employers will continue to shift toward high-deductible health plans, says Steve Raetzman, a partner in the Washington office of Mercer, a benefits consultant.

And a Towers Watson survey last year found that a quarter of employers that suspended 401(k) contributions during the recession still hadn't restored them. Also, 23 percent of those that did reinstate matches did so at lower levels than before.

Plenty of employers are feeling the same economic pressures, which raises the question: Why do some make a bigger commitment to employees' financial security than others?

Luke Vandermillen, vice president at Principal, says winners of the annual contest are for-profits and nonprofits from a wide range of industries, such as manufacturing, education, information technology and financial services.

What they have in common, he says, is a commitment from top management to make benefits a priority. And when times get tough, he says, these employers look for other ways to rein in costs, such as slowing the pace of hiring or not filling empty positions, before cutting benefits. They also involve workers in these decisions, he says.

USP was selected as winner out of more than 480 employers with up to 1,000 workers.

The nonprofit was founded in 1820 to create a standards for drug manufacturers, and its benchmarks are now used here and in more than 140 other countries. USP's revenues come largely from the sale of reference materials to manufacturers. Revenues for the fiscal year that ended in June were $157 million and are expected to reach $171 million this year.

Most of its 700-plus employees are scientists.

USP's Hendrix says it's because the organization is a nonprofit that it offers generous benefits to attract talent.

"It's difficult for nonprofits. We are competing with pharmaceutical companies, with government and very deep-pocketed organizations," he says. "And we simply can't pay on the same scale as big pharmaceutical companies."

Some of USP's other benefits include 100 percent employer-paid premiums for life insurance as well as short- and long-term disability coverage.

USP has a three-tiered comprehensive health insurance plan and, depending on the option, the nonprofit pays 86 percent to 100 percent of the premiums, says Dawn Oram, USP's director of benefits administration.

After keeping employees' premiums flat for several years, USP raised them this year. But still the premiums seem tame. Under one plan, workers pay about $26.60 a month for individual coverage and $82.40 for families.

Lisa Kottler, senior vice president with NFP, a benefits advisory firm, was one of the judges who selected USP. She says she hasn't seen such a financial commitment to benefits by an employer in nearly 20 years in the business.

"It's not any one thing," she says. "They are doing many great things."

For example, she says, USP offers employees one-on-one retirement counseling and solicits feedback from workers about benefits — and actually adopts their suggestions.

"Seriously, very generous," says Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits for the Society of Human Resource Management. "I don't normally see 100 percent-paid medical. Right now, the average is 70 to 75 percent employer-paid. And that number is going south."

The typical 401(k) employer match, he adds, is 3 percent.

If the goal is worker retention, the benefits appear to be working. USP's turnover is 5 percent to 7 percent a year, Oram says.

Principal's Vandermillen says contest winners on average have a turnover rate of 9.8 percent, compared with a national average of 19.7 percent.

But Vandermillen says good benefits are more than just about retaining workers. Research shows that employees are more engaged if they feel "less anxiety about their personal finance situation," he says. And some manufacturers, he adds, notice an improvement in safety records when workers are more engaged in their work.

Given all this, I asked Hendrix why other employers don't follow in USP's footsteps.

"Sadly, a lot of companies treat their employees like commodities," he says. "We recognize the value of employees, and the talents they bring and how it benefits the mission."

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