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Significantly higher numbers of employers offered work and family benefits to employees in 1996 than five years earlier, a new study shows.

The report by Hewitt Associates L.L.C. shows increases in every category of work and family programs studied: flexible scheduling, child and elder care, adoption benefits, and employee assistance program.

Many of the 1,050 large U.S. employers polled are learning that such benefits are no longer an afterthought but can be a key and highly appreciated part of the employee benefit package, as well as valuable in attracting and retaining workers, a Hewitt consultant said.

"Work-life programs are being viewed more and more as an integral part of the benefit program instead of just being considered 'nice to do,'*" said Aimee Chamernik, a Hewitt work-life consultant in Lincolnshire, Ill. "If you have a valued employee who knows the business well and wants to have a compressed work schedule or a part-time schedule, the employer is starting to consider that instead of losing that employee."

The category of benefits showing the greatest percentage increase was elder care, which more than doubled in employer participation-to 30% from 13%- between 1991 and 1996. Of this segment, about eight out of 10 respondents offered employees a resource and referral service that typically consisted of a telephone number and an adviser who could place an elderly relative with a caregiver during an unexpected period of need. In most cases, the employer reported contracting with an outside referral service but 10% conducted the elder care service themselves.

Of the nearly one-third of respondents offering some form of elder care benefit, 25% also reported offering to workers long-term care insurance, and 17% offered counseling on elder care issues.

Most employees have not been able to apply dependent care spending account money to older relatives, however, due to Internal Revenue Service restrictions that preclude workers from claiming the elderly as dependents unless they actually appear as dependents on tax returns, Ms. Chamernik said.

The percentage of employers offering child care programs also increased, rising to 86% from 66% during the five-year period, though in half of these cases the only benefit offered was a dependent care spending account. The next most common benefit was a resource and referral service for parents, offered by 32% of those companies with child care programs. Such a program was most frequently managed by a contract referral service.

Thirteen percent of those companies offering child care benefits offered child backup care programs, in which the employer or a contractor actually supplies a caretaker when a child is ill or injured. But few companies were constructing nurseries or child care centers at the work place.

"We don't see a lot of growth in the area of building child care centers" at worksites, Ms. Chamernik said.

Also becoming increasingly popular last year were flexible scheduling arrangements, the Hewitt survey found. These are a broad class of benefits that allow employees to structure their workdays or work weeks more to their needs and, in some cases, to work from home.

Nearly seven out of 10 employers in Hewitt's survey reported offering flexible scheduling to at least some of their workers. About three-quarters of those who offered flexible benefits offered flextime, 64% offered part-time employment, 36% offered job sharing and 22% offered compressed work schedules. One in five respondents reported offering work at home.

Some companies, though not measured by the survey, were offering a paid time off "bank" in which workers' sick time, vacation days and holiday days were pooled and employees could draw on the time for any purpose.

Twenty-three percent of companies also said they provided adoption assistance to their workers other than leave, mainly in the form of legal fees, mother's medical expenses and agency or placement fees.

The report, "Work and Family Benefits Provided by Major U.S. Employers in 1996," costs $50. For more information, contact Marie Lipari or Saline Leckman, Hewitt Associates, at 847-295-5000.