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Job perks disappear as employers cut back

Once a week for three months, Eric Ferrer shut his office door, made a phone call to his life coach, and spent the next hour shaping his personal and career goals. The sessions were paid for by his employer a company benefit that 28-year-old Ferrer ranks as valuable as health insurance.

"It helped me figure out my vision and stay on track," said Ferrer, a senior recruiter at Signature Consultants, an IT staffing firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

While surveys show coaching is one of the job perks young workers covet, it's one of the rare benefits companies offer. Most employers have cut back on benefits, particularly in the past year, keeping only the basics such as health care and retirement plans.

While employees like Ferrer appreciate the perks their companies offer, only half of workers recently surveyed cite benefits as "very important" to job satisfaction. A new study by the Society of Human Resource Management shows job security now has overshadowed benefits as key to job satisfaction.

"People are just happy they're working when their neighbors are not," said Joyce Gioia, a business futurist and CEO of the Herman Group. The national unemployment rate remains high at more than 9 percent. With the economy still in flux, workplace experts like Gioia are predicting it will take several years before employers bring back their more generous benefits.

In 2011, 77 percent of employers reported their benefit offerings had been negatively affected by the economy -- a 5 percent increase over the past year, according to the Society of Human Resource Management's 2011 Employee Benefits Research Report.

For the most part, employers have kept the basics -- health insurance, paid holidays, life and dental insurance. But they have reduced offerings such as long-term care insurance, retiree health coverage and adoption benefits.

And most have slashed benefits such as executive club memberships, legal assistance or services, mentoring programs, organization-sponsored sports teams, professional development opportunities, travel planning services and housing or relocation costs.

"All the 'nice to haves' have been cut," said Mark Schmit, director of research for the Society for Human Resource Management. "It's a hard time to be an employee."

The loss of benefits, even some that don't seem significant, can have a harmful effect on work/life balance and financial viability. For example, Candace Whitaker, HR director for Signature Consultants in Fort Lauderdale, said her counterparts at some companies are eliminating short-term disability. But she thinks a few weeks without a paycheck could devastate her hourly workers: "If an employee breaks an ankle and he doesn't have short-term disability, it could put a family under."

Whitaker now scrutinizes the cost of every benefit and the return and tries to be more creative to avoid cuts. "I cannot name a benefit that I would not cringe if I saw it go away," she said.

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