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Transportation Benefits: The Road Still Less Traveled by Employers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey from March 2012, just 6 percent of civilian employees have access to subsidized commuting.

October 7, 2013
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Talent Management
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Electric Car, Transportation benefits

When MetLife Inc. installed a free electric vehicle charging station at its Johnstown, Pennsylvania, campus, it fueled HR information system analyst Christine Demorest’s decision to purchase a Nissan Leaf.

“It was enough to sweeten the pot for us,” Demorest said, who with her husband had been considering buying an electric vehicle for a couple of years. “The big things for us were saving on gas and having an environmentally friendly car.”

The decision to install the stations at most MetLife locations is in sync with the company’s culture, said John Chambers, assistant vice president in charge of corporate real estate and facility sustainability. “We pride ourselves in being a leader in promoting change.”

Chambers said New York-based MetLife is one of the few companies outside the transportation or alternative energy fields that provide electric vehicle charging stations as an employee benefit.

But a wide range of companies are providing a wide range of employee transportation benefits – from subsidies for using public transportation or riding a bicycle for the daily commute to providing financial assistance for buying a green vehicle.

Some transportation benefits can even earn tax breaks for employers and employees.

Yet the practice is still gaining traction. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey from March 2012, just 6 percent of civilian employees have access to subsidized commuting.

The benefit was most commonly offered to those working in higher education and public administration, where it was available to 17 percent of employees, and in health care, where 14 percent of employees had access.

It also was most common in larger companies with 500 or more employees, offered by 14 percent of organizations.

Geographically, the trend was most common in the Pacific region, offered by 11 percent of organizations.

One of those West Coast companies that has embraced the practice is SurveyMonkey, which offers online survey tools. The company has about 270 employees, the majority of whom work in Palo Alto, California, or Portland, Oregon.

Employees can choose among a public transportation pass, vouchers for bicycle gear, repairs and other services, or a parking permit, said Rebecca Cantieri, the company’s vice president of human resources.

SurveyMonkey has just begun a pilot program offering carpools to pick up employees and take them to their local Caltrain station for the commute to work.

Offering the carpool service “keeps people in modes of public transportation, not cars on the road,” Cantieri said.

SurveyMonkey gives out $40 bike vouchers monthly. Paying for public transportation or parking spaces costs the company about $250 to $500 every year for every employee who takes part.

But Cantieri said it’s worth the cost. Offering the vouchers helps SurveyMonkey attract and retain talent, and be competitive with other Bay Area employers, she said.

Eliminating long commutes benefits both the company and its employees. “They have more productive hours in the office,” she said.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey found the average employee commuted 25 minutes one way for work, and 8 percent of employees commuted at least an hour each way.

Nearly one-quarter of those with long commutes used public transportation compared with 5 percent of those with shorter commutes. In contrast, 80 percent of workers drove alone to their jobs.

If an employee has a grueling commute, “after a certain amount of time that wears on somebody,” said Phil Winters, director of the Transportation Demand Management program at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

In 2007 the university took over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Best Workplaces for Commuters program, which recognizes and supports those workplaces that meet certain standards for providing employees with commuter benefits.

Making commutes easier helps companies in retaining employees, reducing the cost of hiring and training new workers, and eliminating the need for other employees to work longer hours to handle the workload when jobs are vacant, Winters said.

Federal law allows employers to provide transportation benefits to employees, which aren’t subject to payroll taxes, or lets employees set aside pre-tax income – similar to a 401(k) – to cover transportation costs, Winters said.

Currently, qualified transportation benefits can reach up to $245 per month and pay for mass transit, vanpools or parking, or pay up to $20 per month for bicycle expenses. Commuters can use both the public transportation and the parking benefit, for a maximum of $490 per month.

The aim is to encourage more employees to use public transportation, Winters said. “They’re hopeful it will attract people to transit for whom it wasn’t an option for before.”

At MetLife, the goal is to green the commute for employees. Electric vehicle charging stations have been installed at 14 of the company’s 16 locations, and were unveiled in conjunction with Earth Week.

Josh Wiener, sustainability analyst at MetLife, said information about the charging stations was sent to every employee, and as a result several bought electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The stations can charge two vehicles at a time, and take four to six hours to charge a car. Two campuses have two charging stations.

While it costs the company about $5,000 to $6,000 per unit, it only costs a couple of dollars a day to charge a car, Wiener said.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Demorest said. Between the free charging stations at work and federal and state financial incentives for buying an electric vehicle, “it pushed us to make the decision sooner rather than later.”

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at@workforcenews.

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