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Workers See Shift in Benefits, Report Finds

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Companies are making shifts in the benefits they offer employees, from providing more contraception coverage and more services for new mothers, to being more flexible with paid time off, according to a new report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

This is partly a response to new laws, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as well as an uncertain economy, the report said.

“Companies are looking at ways to provide benefits to employees in a way that’s cost effective,” Evren Esen, manager of SHRM’s survey research center, told ABC News.

According to the report, which surveyed 518 randomly selected human resource managers, 82 percent of employers offered contraceptive coverage this year, up from 66 percent in 2009.  (The Affordable Care Act requires that preventive services, including birth control, be included in new health insurance plans.)

Thirty four percent of employers offer a separate lactation or mother’s room that goes above and beyond a provision of the Affordable Care Act, which required employers with more than 50 employees to provide private space or lactation rooms for nursing mothers.

More employers are also providing workers with paid time off (or PTO) plans, jumping from 42 percent in 2009 to 52 percent this year.  Nine percent offered a paid vacation “cash-out” option, and 15 percent offered a donation program, which allows employees to either sell back their unused vacation or donate it to a communal pool.

“It's a win-win,” Esen said.  “Employees who aren’t using their time feel good about giving it to someone else who can use it.  It’s a creative strategy for an organization to make their employees happy.”

Five percent of employers reported offering a vacation purchase plan, which allows employees to “buy” or “sell” vacation days through a payroll deduction.

USG, a manufacturer and distributor of building materials headquartered in Chicago, allows most of its 9,000 employees worldwide to buy or sell up to a week of vacation time each year, which typically costs one week’s salary and is deducted from paychecks over the course of the year.  A little more than half of employees buy the additional week, and about 5 percent sell it, spokesman Robert Williams told ABC News.

Molly Galvin, a marketing communications manager at USG, has been with the company for 19 years and has always purchased an extra week’s vacation.

“When my sons were young I always used the extra week as a floating cushion day when they had a parent teacher conference or something,” Galvin told ABC News.  “You can use them half day or full day.  You have complete flexibility.”

But though these types of programs are relatively inexpensive to implement, they can be a little complicated.

“There are very strict rules via the IRS as far as some tax ramifications,” said Julie Stich, director of research at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, a non-profit education association for the employee benefit industry, in Brookfield, Milwaukee.  There are also administrative challenges.

“You have to keep track of various people’s benefits, whether they’re buying or selling,” Stich said.  “The value of these days depends on a person’s salary.  And what one person makes if they sell back two days or three days would be different for someone else.”

Still, most employees tend to appreciate and take advantage of these sorts of programs.

USAA, a financial services company for military families, has had a buy and sell vacation program in place since 2005 for its 25,000 employees.  About 41 percent of the company’s employees bought time in 2012; 11 percent sold it back, spokesman Roger Wildermuth told ABC News.

“We recognize that people value time off, and if we can give them the gift of time, it’s helpful to their state of mind and also helps them better service our members,” he said.

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