Welles: Benefits count for feds

Perks can also make the difference in choosing whether to stay at or leave a job

As any new employee can attest, the benefits an employer offers can make the difference in deciding whether to accept a job offer in industry or government. Benefits can also be the deciding factor in choosing to stay at or leave a job.

Two new surveys by the Office of Personnel Management shed some light on the impact of federal benefits on employees' attitudes. Both the 2004 Employee Benefits Survey and the 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey found that benefits involving money, such as paid vacation, sick leave, health insurance and retirement annuities, rank highest in importance and satisfaction among federal employees.

But work/life benefits such as telework, child care subsidies and wellness programs ranked lowest. Among the 150,000 employees who responded to the workforce survey, only 14 percent said they were satisfied with the government's child care benefits and only 24.7 percent said they were satisfied with telework opportunities. On the other hand, 53.9 percent of employees feel positive about flexible work schedules.

In a May 5 press release on the benefits survey, OPM wrote that some benefit programs received lower ratings because not all employees meet eligibility requirements.

But for some employees, eligibility is in the eyes of managers. Restrictive agency policies or managers' reservations rather than employee need can determine who can telework. After all, 34 percent of the employees who responded to the benefits survey reported that telework was not available at their agencies.

Comparing federal vs. private-sector benefits, the benefits survey found that telework and child care subsidies were the least competitive. However, the federal Thrift Savings Plan and health benefits were found to be very competitive — important for an aging federal workforce.

Meanwhile, Congress is looking at ways to improve federal benefits. A subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee approved legislation this month to improve benefits. H.R. 994, introduced by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), would expand premium conversion — the ability to pay health care premiums with pretax dollars — to retired federal employees and active-duty military personnel. Currently, the benefit applies only to federal civilian employees. For civil-service retirees, paying Federal Employees Health Benefits program premiums on a pretax basis could mean a $300 to $500 annual tax savings, according to the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Then there is new dental coverage being prepared by OPM for federal employee enrollment in 2006. Because this benefit will not have a federal match, we will see whether it ranks better than floss in future surveys.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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