Employee benefits aren’t limited to healthcare. There’s a wide range of benefits you can provide for your employees, from health insurance to commuter benefits to 401k savings accounts to life insurance, to help you attract and keep quality talent.
Setting up benefits for your employees requires two things: a benefits provider, and a list of benefits you want to offer. In this article, we’ll explore each type of benefit, the providers who can help you set it up and the costs and administrative effort associated with each.
As we review options below, we recommend you check out Gusto, an affordable payroll, HR and benefits provider offering access to a full suite of benefits, including 401K, health insurance, HSA, commuter benefits, and more. Click here to try Gusto free for 30 days.
Employee Benefits & Benefit Provider Types Summary
|Dental & vision insurance|
|Life & disability insurance|
|401K & retirement plans|
|Paid time off & paid holidays|
6 Types of Benefit Providers
The companies that administer employee benefits on behalf of your business are known as benefit providers. There are several types of providers, outlined in the table below. They vary widely in terms of cost, the types of benefits they provide, and the size of businesses that they work with.
On one end is something basic like HR software or payroll software, and at the other end is working directly with an insurance broker or insurance carrier like Blue Cross or Anthem. Somewhere in the middle are PEOs, which may provide you with better rates and more options than going to a big insurance company or financial services organization on your own.
Most small business owners will want to use one of the six kinds of providers we have outlined here to ensure compliance and eliminate time-consuming administrative hassles.
6 Kinds of Benefit Providers & Who They’re Best For
|Type of Benefit Provider||Best For|
|Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs)||Small businesses with 10-50 employees that want to offer a full range of big-company benefits to their employees -- from medical benefits to 401k.|
|HR Software||Small businesses with 10+ employees that want basic HR features, like onboarding or org charts, in addition to benefit offerings like medical and life insurance.|
|Payroll Software||Small businesses with 1+ employees that want to track benefit deductions correctly in addition to running payroll.|
|SHOP Exchange||Small businesses with 5+ employees that want to provide health or dental benefits through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).|
|Insurance Companies or Brokers||Small businesses with 50+ employees that want to try to negotiate good insurance premiums on their own.|
|Alternative Benefits Providers||Small businesses with 1+ employees that only want to offer out of the ordinary benefits such as flex spending accounts or commuter benefits.|
It’s important for every business, small or large, to provide appropriate benefits to their employees because it encourages them to stay with you, feel good about where they work and your concern for them, and shows their value to you.
1. Professional Employer Organizations (PEO)
A professional employer organization, PEO, is an external organization that manages HR matters for you. PEOs pool together small businesses to offer big-company benefits — like medical and life insurance — at a lower cost. They also ensure your business stays in compliance with tax, state, and federal laws.
PEOs are considered co-employers because they manage HR issues for your employees, such as employee tax forms and worker’s compensation claims. However, you control the employee’s day to day responsibilities and hiring and firing decisions. PEOs are great for businesses in that middle-space — with 10-50 employees — growing, but still too small to negotiate good prices for health benefits and not yet ready to set up their own HR/benefits department.
Your business contracts with the PEO by paying the PEO a monthly or per employee fee to manage all that HR paperwork and compliance such as benefits enrollment and leave tracking. But, the employees ‘work’ at your company. The best part is that you maintain day-to-day contact with your employees, while their paycheck comes from the PEO.
In full disclosure, Fit Small Business uses a PEO for our employees’ HR, benefits and payroll. With some remote staff and a home office in NYC, it made financial sense for us to use a PEO rather than have our own HR/benefits department.
A PEO can provide health insurance, dental and vision insurance, life and disability insurance, and 401K & retirement planning. Many can also administer supplemental benefits like FSAs, cafeteria plans and commuter benefits. They also can track paid time off (PTO) and holidays for you, and they can link fringe benefits, like use of a company car to employees’ pay information.
Our Recommended Provider(s):
We recommend working with Justworks because of their reasonable, transparent prices and excellent customer service.
2. HR Software
HR software can often provide benefits as well. HR software makes sense for a small business once you get to 10 employees or more. That’s because managing HR stuff like employee onboarding and personnel files starts to get time consuming as you add additional staff. Many HR software platforms provide an all-in-one solution that includes payroll, benefits, performance management, recruiting and more.
Like a PEO, HR software can provide health insurance, dental & vision insurance, life & disability insurance, 401K & retirement planning, alternative benefits options like FSAs and cafeteria plans, and commuter benefits, depending on their setup.
Once you get to about 10 or more employees, you may want to manage all that employee benefits data with software rather than on a spreadsheet or you may start to feel overwhelmed with all the questions that employees ask: “can I get a copy of my W2” or “can I increase my life insurance by $10K,” or “can I get a new copy of my vision card?”
Some HR software offers employee self-service, so employees can obtain their own information online. And typically, HR software can track PTO and holidays for you, ensure fringe benefits are managed correctly through payroll and provide summary reports. HR software might also integrate with your accounting system like QuickBooks or Xero, or to a separate benefits provider, like Zenefits.
Our Recommended Provider(s):
3. Payroll Software
Payroll software is an evolving field but at its core, it runs payroll and ensures compliance with federal, state, and local taxes, and other payroll related laws. Most payroll software options also provide workers compensation insurance. Using payroll software is recommended for businesses who have 1 employee or more in order to keep payroll compliant and reliable.
Some payroll software companies are entering the benefits space at a rapid rate. This includes large players like ADP as well as smaller competitors like Gusto and Paychex, all of which have benefit platforms available with their services. Housing your employee benefits and payroll together makes for a seamless integration when your employees enroll.
Similar to HR software, some payroll software companies give you the option to obtain all kinds of insurance and financial/retirement benefits as well as alternative benefits. Some also integrate directly with a benefits provider like Aetna or with an HR/benefits software like Zenefits. They also can track PTO and holidays for you, and they can correctly process income/deductions for benefits like a company car or a uniform laundering program.
Our Recommended Provider(s):
We recommend working with Gusto as a payroll provider. Gusto is continually evolving and is now in the benefits space. We find Gusto incredibly easy to use, reasonably priced, and they have excellent customer service. You can read our full review of payroll software for more information.
4. SHOP Exchange: Small Business Health Options Program
The SHOP Exchange was created by the Affordable Care Act as a way for small business owners to provide their employees with medical and dental insurance. Some states run their own SHOPs and others use the federal government website. Individuals can also use SHOP for their own medical insurance purchase if they want to in some states.
The SHOP Exchange is ideal for businesses from 5- 50 employees that want to provide health insurance to themselves and/or their team. If your business is under 25 employees and you yourself are on the same SHOP health plan as your employees, you can get up to a 50% tax credit, which is a perk. It is worth it to get a quote from your state’s or the federal government’s SHOP Exchange.
The SHOP Exchange offers only medical and dental insurance plans at this time.
Our Recommended Provider(s):
There isn’t really a recommended provider for the SHOP exchange, but you can learn whether your state has their own website for SHOP in our SHOP Exchange guide.
5. Insurance Companies or Brokers
Insurance companies and private brokers are, in general, more expensive for small businesses as an insurance provider. They are often a better option for large companies; however, if you become a part of a PEO or use HR software or payroll software that offers benefits, you get the power of those numbers, and have access to the large insurance companies.
If your business is growing fast, or if you have relationship with a large insurance company or HMO, you could try to deal with them directly as a benefits provider. However, also consider less expensive options that HR software or a PEO could give you.
Independent insurance brokers and insurance companies can provide all kinds of insurance, such as health insurance, dental & vision insurance, life & disability insurance. Some also offer small business financial services and can provide 401K & retirement planning. If you go this route, ask about options like FSAs, cafeteria plans and commuter benefits. However, insurance companies won’t be able to manage your PTO and holidays like HR software or a PEO can, and you’ll still need to manage the deductions through payroll.
Our Recommended Provider(s):
Fit Small Business doesn’t recommend any specific large insurance company provider at this time. Consider looking at national players such as United Healthcare, Aetna and Humana that provide small business health insurance, or do an internet search for “small business health insurance” in your geographic area.
6. Alternative Benefits Providers
If you feel like your business just doesn’t fit into one of our categories above, or if you have a limited budget or a specific benefit you want to provide, you would be best to also look at alternative benefits providers like local credit unions, HRA providers, student loan repayment programs, and local insurance companies.
Some alternative benefits include things like section 125 cafeteria plans, Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRA), Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), and Health Savings Accounts (HSA). Many of these benefits can be provided to the employee as pre-tax deductions.
Our Recommended Provider(s):
If you are interested in alternative employee benefits, we would recommend speaking to our recommended PEO Justworks or to our recommended payroll provider Gusto, or Zane Benefits (they specialize in HRAs).
Now, let’s look at each type of employee benefit in more detail.
10 Types of Employee Benefits — In-Depth Explanation
Employee benefits can range from the typical health insurance provision all the way to commuter benefits. Many, like the first four shown below, are available to the employee as pre-tax options, lowering an employee’s overall taxable income because the benefits deduction is subtracted before tax withholdings are calculated on the employee’s paycheck.
We will provide an overview on each kind of benefit in this section, in the following order:
- Health Insurance, including coverage for employee and family
- Dental & Vision Insurance, including coverage for employee and family
- Life & Disability Insurance, to cover worker & spouse in case of accident/death
- Retirement Planning, such as a 401K, SIMPLE IRA, or profit sharing plan
- Alternative Benefits Options, such as flex spending or health savings accounts
- Paid Time Off, such as holiday, sick and vacation time
- Paid Holidays, such as 4th of July and Christmas
- Commuter Benefits, such as bus/light rail fare, carpooling, or riding a bike to work
- Fringe Benefits, such as a logo jacket, sporting event tickets, or a holiday party
- Work-Life Balance Benefits, such as flex time and remote work options
On the fence about what benefits to offer? Read our article on Company Benefits Stats to see what other businesses are doing, and also to see which benefits are required. And if you are wondering where your employee benefits policies should be kept, an employee handbook can be a good place to store them.
1. Health Insurance
When most business owners think of employee benefits, health or medical insurance comes to mind first. Remember, if you have fewer than 50 full time (or equivalent) employees, you may not need to provide health insurance. But check your state laws as they can sometimes be more comprehensive.
If you do choose to provide health insurance, consider the following 4 questions:
- How many employees will want to sign up?
- Do employees prefer a high or low deductible?
- Do you want to provide a more expensive plan with better coverage, and have employees pay a larger portion of the premium, or do you want to provide a cheaper plan where you can perhaps cover the whole premium?
- Do you live in a city where HMOs are prevalent? (HMOs are often less expensive.)
We answer all the above questions in our health insurance guide. You’ll also want to understand the alphabet soup that makes up insurance plans, from HMO to PPO and HDHP — what they mean, what they cover, and what they cost.
Cost of Health Insurance
There is no simple answer to how much health insurance will cost because it depends largely on where you purchase your company healthcare plan (both your business’s location and your employees’ work and home locations). As the employer, you can choose to pay a flat amount per month or a percentage of the premium. So even if the plan is costly, it doesn’t have to be costly for your business, or for your employees. Most medical insurance premiums are calculated as a pre-tax deduction for the employee.
Health insurance can be provided by PEOs, HR software, SHOP Exchange, local HMOs, health insurance companies or insurance brokers.
2. Dental & Vision Insurance
Most employers might assume that, if you aren’t going to offer medical insurance, why offer dental and vision? Well, dental and vision can be very valuable to your employees and provided at low-cost. So if you can’t afford health insurance, you might look at offering dental and vision insurance to retain and attract employees.
Cost of Dental and Vision Insurance
The costs of dental and vision benefits depend on different factors, including plan design, provider network, healthcare expense trends, group characteristics, funding mechanisms, and administrative expenses. It is best to get a direct quote by contacting your broker or provider directly, or your PEO or HR services provider. Like other medical insurance, dental and vision premiums are typical considered pre-tax deductions.
Dental or vision insurance can be provided by PEOs, HR software, and local insurance companies or brokers. Dental insurance is also available through the SHOP Exchange.
3. Life, Disability, & Supplemental Insurance
Another low cost benefit with high value for employees may be life insurance or short and long term disability insurance. You might also offer supplemental insurance like Aflac or Cigna, that can help employees offset costs and maintain income in case of a major health event like cancer or a heart attack.
While many employers offer these as a voluntary benefit paid for out of the employees’ check, you might consider offering them as an employer-paid benefit. Employees with kids might appreciate life insurance and older employees may appreciate these other options. You’d get a low-cost high-value benefit to employees.
Two things to consider regarding life, disability and supplemental insurance include:
- The age of your workforce (older employees may desire these, while younger workers may not care)
- Whether your workers have families (i.e. those with children might value this more)
Learn more about life insurance and short term & long term disability in our guides on how to offer them. Washington National provides a nice overview on supplemental insurance.
Cost of Life Insurance
In general, the cost of life insurance is about 5 cents and up for every $1,000 worth of coverage. The exact rates, however, are based on a number of factors that include the number of employees purchasing the benefit, the company claims history, the occupations of the group, the gender and age of employees, and the employees’ salaries. Some insurance premiums can be deducted pre-tax.
Cost of Disability Insurance
Regardless of your company’s size, the cost of offering disability insurance, either STD or LTD, is between generally between 1-3 percent of the employee’s compensation. This makes disability insurance an affordable benefit that can be paid for by you, or directly by the employee via payroll deduction. Some insurance premiums can be deducted pre-tax.
Cost of Supplemental Insurance
Supplemental insurance can run from $5-10 month per employee depending on the kind of supplemental insurance purchased. For example, with Aflac, a 2-parent family could obtain cancer insurance for about $8/month. Cigna’s options require a quote but are likely to cost about the same. Some insurance premiums can be deducted pre-tax.
Life insurance, short term & long term disability insurance and supplemental insurance can be provided by PEOs, HR software, some payroll software vendors as well as insurance companies and brokers.
4. Retirement Planning: 401K, SIMPLE IRA, and More
Another attractive benefit for many employees is a 401K or some form of profit sharing plan or retirement plan.
To choose the right kind of plan, you’ll want to consider 3 questions:
- Do you want to contribute, or have your employees contribute? Or both?
- How much will your employees want to contribute per year?
- What is the purpose of the retirement planning: are you looking for a low-cost tax-advantage or do you want to offer a 401k as a recruitment/retention tool?
Depending on your answers, you’ll need to decide between the 4 usual types of retirement plans, which include a SIMPLE IRA, SEP IRA, 401K, and Traditional or Roth IRA.
Cost of Offering a Retirement Plan
The cost of offering a retirement plan will depend on the following three factors:
- Size of your company
- Whether you match a percentage of your employees’ contributions
- How much they plan on saving
Small business can choose to match employee contributions dollar for dollar (such as $1/hour or $100 per pay period), or match based on a percentage contribution, usually between 3-6%.
For many small businesses, the SIMPLE IRAs and SIMPLE 401(k)s are a good option. These only require two one-page IRS forms, and cost about $350 plus $25 per participant. A simple IRA allows total combined contributions (which is employee contribution + employer matching) up to $12,500 per year. 401K limits are higher – up to $18,000 annually. For more on IRS limits, read here. You can also set up a full 401(k), but this more expensive and complicated. SHRM provides some considerations. 401k deductions are typically calculated pre-tax for the employee, subject to limits.
For a 401(k) solution that your employees will love and won’t cost you a fortune, you may want to check out Human Interest. Their dedicated account managers will provide compliance support and help your employees choose great low-fee options for their investments. For a company with 20 employees, it would cost $200 per month. Click here to get more information.
5. Alternative Benefits Options
There are other types of health benefits that can be provided alongside, or instead of, traditional health insurance. This includes things like a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), Health Reimbursement Account (HRA), or section 125 cafeteria benefit plans. We place them into the “alternative benefits” category because of their unique laws and requirements for small businesses. Many of these can be offered to the employee as pre-tax deductions.
You may want to consider offering alternative benefits in the following circumstances:
- You don’t want to deal with offering actual health insurance and the headaches that can go with it, like constantly changing premiums, compliance issues, and medical privacy laws
- You want to provide some sort of health benefit in order to keep your employees happy and for recruitment purposes
- You want to offer a health benefit that can be limited to set amount per employee
We have resources on the following specific alternative benefits/benefit plans:
Cost of Alternative Benefits
Most alternative benefits options have some sort of setup fee, like $1,000, and then a monthly administrative cost that is usually per employee. Then, the cost on top of that would be whatever portion of the premium you are contributing as the employer per employee.
Alternative employee benefits plans can be provided by PEOs, HR software, and insurance companies or brokers. There are also providers like credit unions, banks, and other financial service institutions.
6. Paid Time Off (sick leave, vacation, bereavement, personal holidays)
There are several different kinds of paid time off (PTO). Read our PTO guide to learn more about sick leave and vacation time, bereavement leave, and personal time off. Maternity leave and paternity leave also fall into this category, and we have a guide on each — including the laws and advice for a small business owner. Another emerging trend is unlimited PTO.
Cost of Offering Paid Time Off
The cost of paid time off will depend on your individual payroll expenses and the amount of time you decide to offer. Paid time off generally means you will pay an employee their full wages during those days off, so, if someone makes $50,000 annually, here are some figures:
- $50,000 = $961.54 per week (total salary divided by 52)
- 2 weeks or 10 days vacation leave = estimated $1,923.08
- 1 week sick leave = $961.54
- Total cost = $2,884.61
PTO is usually determined by the business itself. However, it is best tracked through either HR software or payroll software, where employees can use a self-service portal to request time off and have it automatically tracked in the system. PEOs also offer this kind of employee self service.
7. Paid Holidays
Paid holidays are another form of an employee benefit. Federal law does not require you to provide any paid holidays. However, having paid holidays can be an important part of your overall compensation plan for employees, and many full time employees expect to be paid for holidays. We go over the “typical” paid holidays, and what to do if you have a business that usually works on holidays like a restaurant in our holiday pay policy article.
Cost of Offering Paid Holidays
Similar to our previous example, if we go with a person who makes $50,000 annually and give them 6 paid holidays, the cost will be:
- 6 paid holidays = about 1 week = $961.54
Basically, you’re giving every employee one week’s pay for not working. However, remember how much you might save in employee turnover if they choose to stay with your company rather than move to another job that does have paid holidays.
Paid holidays are usually determined by the business itself. Its best to track paid holidays through either HR software or payroll software, so that you don’t have to manage payroll calculations and keep track of how much time off an employee has left.
8. Commuter benefits
Commuter benefits, also known as transit benefits, are popular in urban areas. They may also provide some nice tax breaks for you, and recruiter benefits may be required in 8 states according to SHRM. Overall, here are three great reasons to offer commuter benefits:
- You may be required to provide commuter benefits to employees if you’re in a state like New York, Washington DC or California. Employers that do not comply can be fined as much as $1,000 a day
- If you are looking for a simple benefit plan to offer, commuter benefits can save employees money on commuter expenses and lower their taxable income.
- It can make your business eligible for a federal tax break and, depending on what state you are in, you might receive a state tax break.
Cost of Offering Commuter Benefits
Commuter benefits are subject to limits, so they cost whatever you want to pay for them up to those limits. At the time of press, the following limits were placed on pre-tax commuter benefits:
- For Parking: $255/month
- For Transportation like a Car or Vanpooling: $255/month
- For Bicycling: $20/month and reasonable expenses which may include cost to purchase and maintain a bicycle
- For Transit Passes: $255/month
Commuter benefits actually can be done on your own by creating a company account for the different transit providers you want to cover. However, we recommend using a third party provider, like a PEO, HR software, payroll software or an independent transit benefit provider in order to keep administrative time to a minimum and to make sure you get your tax credits!
9. Fringe Benefits
Other than the benefits mentioned above, nearly everything else you give your employees is considered a fringe benefit — from the company water cooler, to a free t-shirt, to the holiday party. Many are low cost, like free coffee in the break room.
Some fringe benefits are provided to the employee pre-tax, such as tuition assistance. Others, like snacks in the lobby, can be written off as a business expense. But if you pay off a student loan, give an employee a laptop (or other item) that they can use at home for personal use, or hand them a holiday bonus, that income needs to be reported as income on the employee’s paycheck. IRS rules are provided for reference, and we recommend checking specific rules with your tax professional.
7 common examples of fringe benefits are:
- Education assistance for tuition and books
- Repayment of student loans
- Achievement awards up to $1,600 (like a performance bonus)
- Employee discounts on your company’s products or services (up to 20%)
- Birthday and holiday gifts for employees
- Complimentary coffee, soda and snacks in the office for your employees
- Employer-provided meals (that cost less than $75/person)
Fringe benefits may be more valuable to your employees than you think, particularly if you employ Millennials. A 2017 survey by Millennial Personal Finance found that 46% of recent college grads would give up paid time off for student loan repayment assistance from their employer.
Here’s what another expert had to say about the value of fringe benefits to your employees:
Why is it a good ‘investment’ for employers to pay for their employees continuing education, college courses, or to pay off their student loan? Employee retention! How do great employers keep its star employees? It invests in them. Tune your super employees in radio station WIIFM: What’s In It For Me.
Compare a raise of “x” dollars with paying for a continuing education or college course which helps your employee and business to grow and learn new skills. A business needs to analyze the metrics of how long its employees stay. If you are seeing a trend of high turnover, then change something.
Cost of Fringe Benefits
Since fringe benefits can range from use of the company work truck to college tuition to a birthday cake, the costs vary widely.
Fringe benefits can be managed by both PEOs and HR software that provide benefits. For example, if you give an employee a ‘paid’ day off to do volunteer work, the PEO can track it. Most payroll software is able to track employee fringe benefits correctly per paycheck, and for year end tax purposes, and some even allow you to offer personal loans to employees.
10. Work-Life Benefit Options
There are many low to no cost options that some employees would be willing to trade a salary increase for. All of these center around offering employees more flexibility in the workplace. They include everything from allowing a new mom to bring her infant to work, to allowing a worker to work from home one day a week.
Consider some of these work-life benefits:
- Let workers manage their own flex-schedule as long as they get the job done.
- Allow new parents to bring quiet babies to work or allow well-behaved children to study in the back room after school so they’re not home alone.
- Provide a nap or quiet space for employees to use during their break or lunch.
- Provide exercise equipment or a massage chair for employees to use on the job.
- Give each employee one-day per year off to do volunteer work in your community.
- Allow computer workers, such as graphic designers, programmers and professionals to work from home one or more days a week.
- Allow well-behaved pets to come to the office one day a week.
- Allow sales people and service workers to use the company vehicle for personal errands.
- Offer a short-term loan to an employee moving into a new apartment.
31 additional work-life ideas can be found in our article on great work perks. Here are a couple experts who weighed in the value of work-life benefits:
Employee benefits for small businesses that would add value is a work-life balance benefit, providing opportunities for employees to have a flexible schedule or work a day from home. Other benefits include; gym membership, discount programs, training reimbursements. Employees place different value on perks, so know your employees and structure your program accordingly.
Contrary to popular belief, more money does not correlate with greater job satisfaction. This is good news for small business owners: they can provide benefits such as more interesting work (try job rotation); or better alignment between employee values and the work environment (arrange a volunteer effort to build Habitats for Humanity, for example). Owners can also provide greater autonomy, if only on a limited basis or ask employees for their opinion (individually or in staff meetings) to improve both morale and motivation.
Cost of Work-life Benefits
The cost of these vary, but many work-life perks are free from a financial standpoint, and instead require you to change your thinking about how employees want to work. If you add a nap room or outdoor kennel/dog play area, that may cost several thousand dollars. But allowing an employee to work from home may cost no more than upgrading their computer equipment from a desktop to a laptop or Chromebook.
You are the provider! What options will you consider? If you need a tool to track flex time or keep track of remote workers, consider using free time-tracking software.
Bottom Line on Offering Employee Benefits
According to a survey by Aflac, seventy-two percent of small-business employees say an improvement in their benefits offerings would make them happier. Setting up employee benefits doesn’t have to be complicated or even expensive, and will improve your ability to hire and retain employees. Like running payroll and paying taxes, offering benefits is one of the small business problems that, once you get it right, can actually help your bottom line.
Using our guide to determine what benefits to offer, and what kind of providers can help, is the key to ensure your small business creates and maintains a great employment brand.