NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When Tom Thamm's 8-year-old cocker spaniel, Dempsey, developed strange lumps last year, Thamm immediately whisked his beloved pooch to the vet.
The growths were removed and, happily, Dempsey turned out to be perfectly healthy. But Thamm got more than a clean bill of health for Dempsey. His employer, Small Dog Electronics, paid 80 percent of the $120 vet bill.
Two years ago, Small Dog, a Waitsfield, Vt., company that sells Apple computers, began offering doggie insurance as part of its benefits package. The program covers 80 percent of vet bills, up to $2,000 annually, and fits with the company's canine theme. It's also something that employees like Thamm really value.
"Almost everyone here has a dog," he says. "It's a weird, off-beat perk but it really does provide peace of mind."
Pet insurance? In 2003?
Cutbacks are common, but not mandatory
Budget-restrained employers are more likely these days to cut back or even eliminate basic benefits. Health care coverage for humans, much less for their furry friends, is at risk.
A recent study by Watson Wyatt, for example, found that health care costs exceeded benefit budgets at 45 percent of companies in 2001. Now, few employers -- just 32 percent -- are willing to pay for the cost overruns. Eight out of 10 companies are requiring employees to shoulder more of their health care premiums and co-payments.
Yet despite the less-than-robust economy, there are those employers who continue to lavish employees with an array of dot-com era perks -- from dry-cleaning services to company gyms where staffers can blow off steam.
In some cases, employers are offering unusual benefits because "they have no choice if they want to retain valuable workers," said John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Moreover, firms that build a reputation for spoiling employees will be in a better position to attract and retain top talent when the economy eventually picks up. Current estimates from the Labor Department indicate that in seven years, there will be some 168 million jobs open, but just 158 million employees to fill those spots.
Let us spoil, and retain, you.
Health care is one industry that's particularly hard-up for available employees, and competition to attract and hire nurses, lab technicians and other staffers is fierce. That's where benefits kick in.
Take the case of Indiana Heart Hospital in Indianapolis. Thanks to its so-called "concierge program," employees can get someone else to tend to their day-to-day chores, such as getting their oil changed, having their dry cleaning done or ordering flowers to be sent on their behalf.
The concierge staff also conducts Internet research for employees about virtually any topic. That means someone can ask for a report on places to buy cheap airline tickets or, say, information about different universities that they can share with their college-bound kids when they go home at the end of the day.
"These are things you'd research in your office," said Emily David, director of guest relations who oversees the hospital's concierge program. "We're saying, 'let us do the research for you so you can focus on your job.'"
That means, "you don't have to go on your Saturday to get your oil changed," said David. "It's like belonging to a neat club."
Gary Brown certainly agrees. A patient representative at the hospital, Brown's day is busy updating families about loved ones who are in surgery. He is also an assistant minister at his church, so free time is a premium.
"I was able to bring my wife's car in for the oil change, work eight hours, and when I returned to the parking lot, the car was waiting for me," said Brown. "It gave me free time outside of work."
How about a little nap?
Benefit programs don't have to be lavish to generate employee enthusiasm. At R&H Construction in Portland, Oregon, for example, employees can rest in a room set aside for naps or get a 15-minute chair massage when they need a time-out.
"When we first got the nap room everyone thought it was kind of a joke," said Human Resources Director Amy Hill. "But now everyone uses it."
At S.D. Deacon Corp., another Portland construction firm, administrative employees get a one-time $100 gift to spend on office decorations, such as posters, picture frames or rugs, so they can personalize work spaces. The company also pays up to $4,000 in adoption expenses incurred by any employee.
"Steve Deacon [the company president] thought that it would be helpful for families who want to adopt a child who doesn't have a home. It's not widely used but we've had employees go to Korea and China and adopt children," said human resources administrator Candice Doumitt.
If benefits at places like S.D. Deacon seem to be a strange mix of perks, that's not surprising. Often they are offered as a result of certain circumstances.
At Yarde Metals, a Connecticut-based manufacturer, company President Craig Yarde opened a special nap room after he noticed staffers taking quick catnaps at their desks. Then he started polling employees about the kinds of perks they would use.
The upshot? The company is now building a 5,000 square-foot facility at its Southington, Connecticut headquarters that will boast an array of spa-like amenities when it opens in June.
Facilities will include a yoga room, gym and weight room, basketball courts, men's and women's locker rooms and a dog kennel and run where staffers can bring their pooches for the day. The building will even have a special "coffee roasting" room where employees can roast green coffee beans for the freshest cups of java possible.
Often, companies reward staff because doing so is a win-win situation.
Consider the case of Bank One. For the past two years, the Chicago-based bank has given employees who earn less than $40,000 stock grants worth $300. The stock is put into a 401(k) plan, whether or not employees are putting pre-tax income from their salaries into the retirement program. Employees who do contribute to the 401(k) also are eligible for bank matching funds up to 4 percent of their pay, regardless of their income.
Though the grants weren't meant to help higher-paid employees, bank spokesman Tom Kelly acknowledges that they also benefit if more lower-paid Bank One employees sign up for the 401(k). That's because so-called federal non-discrimination rules governing 401(k) plans prohibit richly compensated workers from contributing roughly more than 2 percent of their salaries than employees who take home slimmer pay checks.
"The first year of the grant, we got e-mails back from employees saying 'This is terrific. I've been thinking about opening a 401(k), and now I'm going to do it,' '' said Kelly. "We want our employees to think like owners. The grants do change the way they think about the company."