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MOST EMPLOYEE BENEFITS TODAY are considered entitlements by employees. Workers expect to receive health care and retirement benefits, and few appreciate them any more than their regular salaries.

But there are some benefits employers can offer that many employees will regard as precious as a birthday gift, generating goodwill, loyalty and greater satisfaction with their jobs.

These are so-called work/life or work/family benefits an employer provides to help employees manage their responsibilities outside the job, such as caring for a dependent child or ailing relative.

The employer's return on the investment in these programs is not only goodwill and job satisfaction but also greater productivity because of a reduction in non-work-related distractions. These benefits also can serve as competitive tools to attract employees. And they help employers respond both to diversity in the workforce and the needs of employees at different stages of life.

While it is still a minority of employers that offer such programs, their numbers are growing as the success of these benefits is shown.

We report this week on a handful of such programs, each of which benefits both the employer and employee.

Take adoption assistance benefits, for example. The cost of providing money to help cover the cost of adoptions is low compared with the medical cost for labor and deliveries. In addition, relatively few employees will take advantage of such a benefit.

Yet making this benefit available has an incredible payoff in terms of higher employee morale. That is especially true for employees who are unable to bear children and see the benefit as evening the scales with other workers in terms of what resources the employer provides.

On the other end of life's spectrum, a coalition of employers has embarked on an elder care initiative that promises a big payoff for employees at little cost to employers.

The American Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, a national coalition of 22 large companies, is helping create a model for communities to provide escorted transportation services for elderly dependents of workers. This transportation assistance allows employees-without taking time off from work-to ensure their elderly relatives make doctor visits or shop for groceries. That relieves workers of the stress of having to choose between family needs and job obligations. The programs also can give older adults the satisfaction of not burdening a relative with such assistance.

These examples and others contained in this issue are only a few of the work/life benefits available to employers. For companies looking for new benefits that give more bang for the buck, work/life programs fit the bill. Just as these benefits bring employees peace of mind about their lives off the job, they can give employers the peace of mind that comes from a more satisfied, productive and loyal workforce.