Federal and state laws make it mandatory for most employers to offer employee health plans, and you'll find a great amount of variety in the types of plans and what's included in them. Companies shop for the benefits packages they'll offer, including major medical, dental and vision, according to price and scope for their employees. Other common employee benefits include retirement and pension plans -- such as the opportunity to make automatic contributions to a 401(k), which may or may not be matched by the company -- life and disability insurance, and family and medical leave (including maternity leave and paternity leave).
Companies may offer one plan, or they may offer several different "packages" so that employees can choose the health care plan that best suits their particular lifestyle, health challenges and plans for their kids' coverage.
These are considered "the usuals" of employee benefits, the ones you can name off the top of your head. But you might be surprised to know that you have access to additional employee perks. They might have been there all along, and you just didn't notice them when you originally signed all your paperwork to join the company. Or they might have been announced in a company memo (that you never read) years ago. "We get free passes to yoga classes?" says Charlene DiMatteo, in her second year at a law firm. "I had no idea. Sign me up!"
Go to your company's website and click on either employee benefits or the human resources page to find out about any employee benefits, discounts and freebies you can access right now. Here are some of the money-saving, health-improving and morale-boosting perks you might discover as yours for the asking:
--Athletic facilities discounts. Your company may have worked out a deal with a nearby fitness center that gets all employees a free six-month pass for unlimited classes, and then discounted membership renewals. At discount fashion company Zappos -- which was ranked No. 11 in Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" 2012 awards -- employees enjoy access to free yoga classes. If your company has a fitness center discount, call your HR manager to ask whether your membership allows for your spouse/partner and kids to join you at the gym as free guests, or whether they can get discounted memberships, as well.
--Educational assistance. Some companies will help you pay for continuing education classes as you work toward an advanced degree.
--Child care assistance. Your company may offer free child care at the office, or you could get free child care at a local center if a backup plan is needed.
--Dependent care assistance. If you have a parent or other relative with a serious medical condition, your company's benefit plan may help you acquire lower-cost in-home nursing or hospice care, or grant you extra time off for your family responsibilities.
--Transportation assistance. You might have access to deeply discounted train passes for your commute, as well as free parking at the train station. You might also be granted compensation for your travel to continuing education classes.
--Travel insurance. In addition to medical insurance plans, some companies offer discount travel insurance for employees.
--Smoking cessation. A large number of companies offer free smoking cessation programs that help employees kick the habit, get healthier and be more productive at work (by not taking frequent smoke breaks during work hours). At Wegman's Food Market, No. 4 on Fortune's list, more than 200 employees are currently enrolled in their smoking cessation program. Johnson & Johnson, known for its healthy benefits, also offers tobacco cessation programs.
--Free dining. All of those lunches add up! At Google, No. 1 on the 2012 Fortune list of best places to work, employees have access to free cafes and well-stocked pantries, saving them thousands of dollars on their food expenses each year. At film production company Bad Robot, a team of personal chefs works their corporate kitchen, offering a daily menu of gourmet eats.
--Free subscriptions to industry websites. Some in-demand research sites like LexisNexis cost a hefty fee to subscribe to, but being an employee means you may get a free subscription to assist in your work.
--Deeply discounted consumer and trade magazines. The company may offer employees valuable downtime perks, such as $30 subscriptions for $3 or less.
--Sporting supplies. At Fortune's No. 8 company, REI, employees are granted free rentals of sports equipment and deeply discounted prices on the company's sporting goods, clothing and other items. (According to Forbes' report, REI also offers sabbaticals to qualifying employees.)
Companies benefit when workers are healthier, stress-relieved and educated, so they offer more wellness and leisure-related perks. It's very possible that if you suggest to your company's HR team that they offer a smoking cessation program, or arrange for free yoga classes, or connect with a child care center to offer workers free or discounted backup care, they just might agree and add that perk to the company plan. You, then, get better quality of life in your corporate culture, just by suggesting additional benefits.