Tech, social media employers offer perks aplenty

Source: | By: Kathleen Pender Updated 3:45 pm, Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bay Area tech and social media companies are engaged in an arms race to see who can offer the most – and most unusual – benefits to employees.

While most Americans would be happy to get a job with health coverage, tech workers are being wooed with napping stations, unlimited vacation, free housekeeping and errand-running, yoga classes, on-site doctors and masseuses, and gourmet cafeterias.

Tech companies “don’t want to hear about health care, 401(k), life insurance. Those are commodity benefits,” says Vincent Antonelli, a senior benefits consultant with Towers Watson.

Social Print Studio of San Francisco is a good example of the modern startup. Along with health care, but no 401(k) yet, it offers unlimited vacation, napping boxes, and a fully equipped jam room where its 20 employees and their friends can record a song or video. There is a wall of exotic taxidermy animals; employees are encouraged, but not required, to choose one that best represents their spirit.

The company, which lets customers print photos off Facebook, Instagram and other social media, once brought in classical musicians to serenade the staff. Another time, it filled a bathtub with beer. Co-founder George Sylvain calls the 6,000-square-foot office “a creative playpen.”

Redwood City’s Evernote, a maker of productivity apps that employs about 330 people, pays a service to clean employees’ houses (excluding windows) and provides catered snacks and lunches, unlimited paid time off, a $1,000 vacation subsidy if an employee takes a week off work, gym membership reimbursement, and a $250-per-month electric vehicle subsidy. This is in addition to medical, dental and vision coverage, life insurance and a 401(k).

In its early days, San Francisco’s Udemy, a marketplace for online courses, took the company on a working vacation or “workation” in Antalya, Turkey. “We did some work but also rented a boat and went out on the Mediterranean Sea,” says Dinesh Thiru, the San Francisco firm’s vice president of marketing.

Eventbrite, also in San Francisco, offers a treadmill desk (max speed 2 miles per hour) and a kitchen stocked with a Vitamix blender, fresh fruit, almond milk, hummus, Greek yogurt, flaxseed and kombucha.

Though billed as perks, many of these benefits help the company as much as they help employees.

Vacation unlimited?

Take unlimited vacation, a startup staple in the Bay Area.

Companies are not required to offer paid vacation, but if they do, it becomes a liability. In most states, companies can require employees to take vacation within a certain period or forfeit it.

California, however, does not permit use-it-or-lose it policies; paid vacation is treated like wages. Companies can limit how many vacation hours an employee can accumulate, but when an employee departs, all accrued vacation must be paid out.

“At startups, if people have paid time off and are working a ton and the company gets acquired, that is a bunch of money that has to be paid out,” says Brian Helmick, founder of Algentis, which handles human resources for tech companies.

But if a company offers unlimited vacation, it could really mean no vacation.

Such policies “benefit employees in that they are not limited to what they have accrued. It benefits employers in that when employees depart there is not a big payout obligation,” says Felicia Reid, an employment lawyer at Hirschfeld Kraemer.

This theory, however, has never been tested in California courts. Employees who were promised unlimited vacation but never took any potentially could argue they are entitled to something, says Erika Frank, general counsel with the California Chamber of Commerce.

In the Bay Area, 60 to 80 percent of startups offer unlimited vacation, Helmick says. Most companies that offer it don’t know how much vacation employees actually take because they don’t track it.

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Photo: Brianna Haag, Eventbrite San Francisco marketing manager, opens her laptop as she demonstrates using the treadmill desk at Eventbrite on Friday, October 25, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle