Benefits and Bonuses

If you’re like most students, job benefits are a completely foreign concept. Yes, your job as chief burger-flipper may have offered free “food,” and your stint at Mall-Mart may have offered a generous employee discount in exchange for making you work on every major holiday, but those mall job benefits barely scratch the surface of what real employers offer their workers.

Now that you’re preparing for a better future—one that hopefully won’t involve super-sizing anything—you need to understand what benefits employers will dangle under your nose, which employers offer the best deals and how to bargain your way to a more inviting work environment.

Benefit Basics

When interviewing prospective employees at job fairs or during campus recruitment drives, human resource personnel often refer to a “standard benefits package” while painting their place of employment as a worker’s utopia. Unfortunately, no benefits package is ever standard, as you’ll quickly discover once you start comparing one company’s offerings against another’s.

Here’s an explanation of benefits that employers might use to entice you, starting with those most likely to be offered and ending with ones you might have to bring up on your own:

Insurance

As you might expect, health insurance coverage is offered by almost all employers. Not all health care coverage is created equal, however. And note that we didn’t say “free health insurance coverage.” In many cases, the employee will have to pay for at least of portion of the premium through payroll deduction, at least during the first year or so of employment. Premiums have been jumping by double-digit percentages each year, which makes it imperative for employees to become increasingly savvy about what’s covered.

“Most people have become pretty intelligent in terms of retirement packages, but the big difference now will be what your co-pay is, what your deductible is, what your out-of-pocket maximum is and so forth,” says Alex Ogburn, vice president of recruiting for Allied Consulting, Inc. in Irving, Texas. “[Health insurance] can be a tremendous part of any benefits package.”

If you have a spouse and/or dependents that need health insurance from your employer, be sure to find out how much you’ll have to pay out of your own pocket. Medical coverage for a family of four might cost you $600 a month through one employer and less than half that through another. It could be the deciding factor in choosing between job offers.

Liability insurance, which covers legal costs in case you are sued for mistakes on the job, also ranks high among benefits offered. Dental, vision, disability and life insurance are less common.

Vacation, holiday and sick leave

Every company offers some number of vacation days and paid sick leave, but specific figures vary widely, as does a company’s willingness to offer unpaid leave to employees who want to take long summer vacations.

Relocation funds

If you’re moving more than 100 miles for your new job, your employer may pick up the tab, sometimes on moving day itself. “In the past, you had to out-of-pocket that expense and wait to get repaid,” says Trevor Williams, vice president of recruiting for Martin, Fletcher, a retained recruiting firm in Irving, Texas. “Now, 30-40% of the hospitals use direct billing to pay moving expenses for you. You’re taxed on that relocation bonus, but you don’t have to wait to get reimbursed.”

Tuition or loan reimbursement

To get students right out of school, more and more employers are willing to cough up a few thousand dollars per year, generally for two to three years, towards repayment of student loans. “This benefit used to be only for pharmacists,” says Williams, “but now allied health candidates should ask for it every time.” Again, you’re taxed on this benefit, but it’s still better than laying out the funds yourself.

Flex-time

Having the freedom to choose your own hours is a given with many health care-related employers. Perhaps you want to work 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. daily so you can spend the evenings with your children, or you’d rather work 10 hours daily for four days so that you can enjoy three-day weekends. Ogburn says that some students placed by Allied Consulting have such diverse skills that they work three 12-hour shifts at one full-time job, then pick up two eight-hour shifts as a part-time position. “They still work five days a week, but for 50+ hours,” he says. “For someone right out of school with no attachments, they often think, ‘Why not work more?’”

Savings plans

The standard 401(k) option can be found with many employers, however, the dollar value or percentage of your contribution that the company will match can make a huge difference decades down the road.

Free housing

Some employers are so short-staffed that they want you to start as soon as possible—and they’ll prove it by paying rent on an apartment or placing you in staff housing for 60 to 90 days until you find a place of your own.

Commuting pay

If you live outside a certain radius from the employer, or you’re a CT tech, for example, who’s paged in the middle of the night, your employer might reimburse you for the commute, either directly or by adding hours to your paycheck. Says Ogburn, “That’s not really mainstream yet, but it’s something to look out for.”

Employee support and mentoring

Some facilities offer new employees the chance to work one-on-one with more experienced employees.

Certification bonuses

With each exam you pass, you’re a more valuable asset, both to your current employer and to the market at large. Some companies will reward you with a higher hourly rate (up to $1/hr) to keep you on their team.

Child care/dependent care coverage

Most parents will have to cover child-care expenses on their own because hospitals prefer to avoid the high liability costs associated with on-site child care. A flexible schedule can make it possible for you and your significant other to avoid day-care costs—just get used to communicating with your partner through notes.

Immediate benefits

Not a separate benefit so much as an acceleration of existing ones, Williams says that a number of facilities are forgoing the 90-day wait period before benefits kick in and offering them from the first day of employment.

Not-So-Basic Benefit Plans

Other benefits plans that you might encounter include the “cafeteria” benefit plan and the flexible benefit plan.

The cafeteria plan works as if you were choosing benefit options from a menu: Each employee has a certain amount of money to spend on the benefits that he or she deems most desirable, so one person can choose a pediatric dental plan to cover her four kids while a childless employee might opt for more vacation days and no dental plan at all.

A flexible plan grants an employee even more leeway about how his or her benefit dollars are spent. As in a cafeteria plan, the employer determines an upper limit for each employee, but the employee also has the option of receiving part of the funds in cash. However, cash benefits are taxable, whereas life and health insurance are not, so the “take home” value of these options isn’t always equal.

How Employers Stack Up

Nearly every position in the health care industries is in huge demand, in part because the economic boom of the 1990s drew students away from medical schools and into MBA programs. In a tight labor market, conditions have never been better for medical students entering the work force.

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“Hospitals are a very good environment,” says Donna Broderick, director of the medical laboratory technician program at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, Pa. “My husband works for Quest Labs, and his benefits aren’t any better or worse [than those available at hospitals].”

As might be expected, for-profit hospitals tend to be the most aggressive with their salary and benefit offers. In addition to including many of the largest health care systems nationwide, for-profit hospitals often have more leeway than non-profit facilities with their budget. As Ogburn points out, to fill vacancies on a temporary basis, a hospital typically must pay twice the normal hourly rate for that worker; an ultrasound temp, for example, might earn $50 per hour, whereas a staff member would earn $25. For-profits can count on the increased funds a permanent worker would bring in to offset the salary expense, but non-profits typically operate on a set annual budget and don’t have such freedom.

Trevor Williams says that a more important consideration than whether a hospital is for-profit or non-profit is where it’s located. “There’s a massive shortage of allied and nursing personnel in the Midwest,” he says. Richard Doolittle, head of the department of medical sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology, says that many students stay with the clinics and hospitals at which they intern during college, which means that those willing to travel cross-country to a more needy environment might receive juicier offers.

Clinics fall next in terms of aggressive benefits packages, says Williams, “largely because of the quality of life they offer a candidate versus call schedules and different types of shifts available elsewhere.”

Government hospitals fall at the bottom of the scale, offering little more than a strong retirement package and, as Tyler Wilkerson, director of research of Allied Consulting, puts it, “every holiday you can think of.” The government retirement package is strong enough, though, that Williams says many people come out of the service and head straight for VA hospitals.

Sounds Good, But…

Just like buying a new car, don’t feel compelled to sign on the dotted line after the first offer. “It’s very rare when an employer makes an offer that it’s a ‘take it or leave it’ offer,” says Steven Rothberg, founder and president of Minneapolis-based CollegeRecruiter.com. “There’s little to no harm, and often great gain, in asking for an increase in salary or better benefits.”

Despite how it might feel when you’re sweating in the interviewee’s chair, you have almost as much power as the HR manager doing the grilling. Once he makes an offer, you’ve been given the green light to start negotiating. He wants you to work there as badly as you do, and now it’s up to the two of you to decide how valuable you really are.

Ideally, you’ve done research ahead of time—either by asking other students about their paychecks, calling other companies in the field, or reviewing sites such as Salary.com—so that you know what kind of salary to expect for this position. Before you blurt out a number, however, make sure you understand exactly what this position entails. You don’t want to accept an offer, and then discover you’re also responsible for driving tissue samples back and forth from lab to hospital. Oh, and picking up the lab coats at the dry cleaners. And….

Even if a salary offer falls in the range you expect, you lose nothing by asking for a bit more. Says Rothberg, “Many employers have more respect for employees who aren’t afraid to ask for what they feel they’re worth.”

If more salary is out of the question—and “hard” benefits such as health care insurance and pension plans are non-negotiable, as they often are—it’s time to switch gears and start pushing for “soft” benefits, which include flex-time, shorter review periods, a better workspace, paid or unpaid leave, sign-on bonuses and even fancy titles. “In many organizations, the managers have discretion over soft benefits,” says Rothberg.

Again, whether your proposals are accepted or brushed aside, you gain from having been bold enough to ask. “They understand that you’re not a pushover, that you have value and won’t blindly accept whatever they offer you,” says Rothberg. “Six to 12 months down the line, when it’s time for a formal review, you’ll enter negotiations with the manager knowing you’re not afraid to ask for more.”

Whatever salary and benefits package you finally agree on, don’t seal the deal with a handshake. Get the offer in writing to avoid arguments months later over whether you can take a week’s leave without pay or race lab carts down the hallway.

Finally, don’t be afraid to turn down an offer and go elsewhere. “Anyone in imaging—X-ray, CT, MRI, ultrasound—needs to understand the value they bring to a facility,” says Williams. “Facilities don’t really see the direct benefits of a nurse, but imaging brings revenue into the hospital.” Even if you’re not in imaging, your work will contribute to the value of any organization. Make sure to keep that in mind when you negotiate an offer, and your employer-to-be will have no choice but to do the same.

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