What’s more valuable — getting out of debt or getting away? Soon more workers will have the opportunity to make that calculation.
PTO Exchange, a platform that allows employers to give workers the ability to put the monetary value of their vacation days towards retirement savings, charitable donations and other goods and services, is expanding its offerings to include student-loan payoff, the company announced Thursday.
Over the past few years, companies have increasingly started offering student loan payoff — funded by the employer — as a perk to lure young, talented workers. Still, just 4% of companies offer the benefit, according to the Society of Human Resource Management. But Thursday’s announcement indicates that a new twist on this perk could help convince more companies to offer the perk — by using money already budgeted for another benefit to offer student loan help.
It’s also an indication of the challenges our nation’s $1.5 trillion student debt problem poses to borrowers — some may be so burdened by their loans that they’re willing to give up earned rest to get out of debt more quickly.
“A lot of these companies think this is a great idea,” Rob Whalen, the chief executive officer of PTO Exchange, said of student loan help. “But it’s hard to find the funds. Here is an already budgeted benefit that’s accrued. Why not allow your employees to self-direct some of it — not all of it — to help them financially?”
Companies that decide to offer employees the opportunity to put the value of their vacation days towards their student loans would design their own plans, Whalen said. For example, some might require employees use a minimum of their vacation days for vacation before putting them towards another use, he said.
PTO Exchange is also launching a program that will allow employees to use the value of their paid time to cover certain emergency expenses.
The announcement comes both as employers are getting more creative with the paid time off benefit and as they’re looking for ways to cope with a tighter labor market, said Peter Cappelli, the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Over the past several years, it’s become more common for employers to offer unlimited vacation days to workers. Though that may seem like a good deal for employees, it’s a great deal for companies, Cappelli said, who are able to move the liability of the accrued vacation days they owe to their employees off their books.
At the same time, companies want to find a way to lure young, talented workers in a tight labor market, he said. Providing student loan help allows them to do that without upsetting current employees by paying new workers higher salaries. Allowing workers to put vacation days towards this purpose offers an added benefit to the company, he said. “It gets the obligation off their books as well, so it doesn’t look like they’re carrying all this debt to the employees.”
For workers who already aren’t using their all of their vacation days — a large share leave more than half on the table — trading them in for student loan help could be a better deal, Cappelli said. “If they feel they can’t use it, it is better to have this kind of arrangement, I suppose.”
Still, allowing workers to forgo time away in exchange for something else could help to reinforce the mentality that’s driving workers to leave so many of their vacation days unused, said Eileen Appelbaum, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank.
“People feel that if they take all of the paid leave they’re entitled to, they will be overlooked in promotion and in other ways that the company evaluates them because they will be considered not dedicated enough,” she said.
A system that allows workers to trade their paid time off for student loan help allows companies to get the benefit of having the employee at work while still spending the same amount of money as if they were away, she said. Right now, the average full-time worker with benefits has 14 paid vacation days and eight holidays, according to a forthcoming CEPR report due to be released next week.
At that level, “it may be more difficult to give them up,” she said.
And of course this is the type of benefit — like most employer-based student loan help — will only reach the most well-off workers, she noted. Nearly half of workers whose wages are in the bottom quartile of the income bracket receive no paid time off, according to a forthcoming CEPR report due to be released next week.
So while it’s nice to see more companies with the ability to offer this type of benefit providing it to their workers, “it’s nowhere near what we need,” she said.
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