Small businesses struggle to provide health care benefits, but offer perks to attract workers

Small business owners continue to struggle to provide traditional health care benefits to their workers, but some are providing other unusual perks, as an alternative, to help attract and retain employees.

A new report released Wednesday by Bank of America found that only 33 per cent of the small business owners it surveyed provide traditional health benefits. But 31 per cent offer additional amenities in the workplace, such as healthy snacks or massages. About 45 per cent offer flexible work or work-from-home options for employees.

Robb Hilson, small business executive at Bank of America, said many small business owners are finding innovative ways to keep employees happy and healthy and that these perks can help small businesses make up for, in part, the lack of traditional benefits.

“I talk to a lot of small business owners, and even though the job market has been tough, hiring and retaining talented employees has been difficult mostly because those employees may be attracted to larger companies that offer those (traditional) benefits,” Hilson said.

Health care has always been a key benefit for employees and represents a major cost for employers. Much of the impact of the Obama administration’s Affordable Health Care Act is still pending, but many business owners are keeping a close eye on the issue and are concerned that it may increase their costs.

Bank of America launched the semi-annual survey last year to assess the attitudes of small business owners, but this is the first time it has taken a look at the physical health of respondents. The survey is of more than 1,000 small business owners around the country.

Fifty-three per cent of small business owners said that their personal health has improved as a result of running their businesses. And 85 per cent said they’ve taken some steps to contribute to the health and happiness of their employees.

Small business owners still face stress. About 13 per cent say their health has become worse as a result of running a small business. The majority of respondents, 72 per cent, work more than the typical 40-hour work week. And about half say they take less vacation and sleep less as a result of their choice to run their own company.

However, some say they exercise more, eat more healthfully and spend more time with their spouse, family and friends.

Small business owners also expressed upbeat attitudes about their financial position.

About half of the respondents expect their revenue to increase for the year and 31 per cent plan to hire more employees. About two-thirds said they have adequate access to capital. While only 19 per cent say they plan to apply for a loan in 2013, nearly 80 per cent said their most recent loan application was approved.

Business owners ages 18 to 34 years old, are the most optimistic about the future — a finding consistent with last year’s results. About 61 per cent of these business owners expect the national economy to improve over the next 12 months, compared with 41 per cent overall.

“There is increasing demand for credit and increasing confidence in the economy, but it’s not robust,” Hilson said. “The data validates what I hear in almost every meeting. They are resilient, they are confident. There is this new normal, a challenging economy, but one that gets better quarter after quarter.”