By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz

Chicago Tribune

At 26, Rariety Monford worries far less about saving for retirement than paying down $60,000 in student loan debt. So her employer has decided to do the saving for her.

Abbott Laboratories Tuesday announced a perk designed to ease the financial squeeze facing employees like Monford who are burdened with heavy student debt that causes them to forgo critical years of saving.

The medical-device maker said that U.S. employees who contribute at least 2 percent their salaries to paying off student loans will get a 5 percent 401(k) match from Abbott. That’s the same percentage given to employees who contribute 2 percent to their 401(k)s. The new benefit will allow employees to accumulate savings in their retirement accounts without committing any of their own money.

Helping employees pay student debt has become an increasingly popular, though still rare, benefit employers are using to attract and retain young talent. More than 60 percent of students who graduate from college in Illinois have student debt, with an average bill of nearly $30,000. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Americans ages 21 to 32 have nothing saved for retirement, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

Most employers offering student loan repayment assistance make monthly cash payments against an employee’s debt to the loan holder. But those payments are taxed, and they don’t necessarily result in employees putting more money into retirement savings, said Steve Fussell, executive vice president of human resources at Abbott.

To more directly help young people build a nest egg, “we set about doing this in a way that others weren’t doing it,” Fussell said.

The north suburban Chicago company, which employs 29,000 workers in the U.S., hires 1,000 people under 35 each year. Many of them have master’s degrees or doctorates and therefore more that typical debt. Younger employees with student debt contribute less to their 401(k)s than those without.

Fussell estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 of Abbott’s employees will use the benefit, which has no time or contribution limits. Employees who join the company with starting annual pay of $70,000 and take advantage of the program could have $54,000 accumulate in their 401(k) accounts over 10 years without any contributions of their own, the company said. That’s assuming a 6 percent average annual return and yearly merit pay increases of 3 percent.

Helping employees build future financial security fits into Abbott’s other investments to build a sustainable talent pipeline, Fussell said.

“The program does have a cost, but we think the (return on investment) is tremendous,” he said.

For Monford, an engineer in Abbott’s professional development program, the new benefit will give her much-needed breathing room.

“I have to think about the here and now, and what’s most important is paying off my loans,” said Monford, who graduated two years ago with a degree in biomedical engineering from North Carolina A&T State University. “But I know that if I don’t save, I’m missing out on that time, and time is the most important thing to accumulate savings.”

Monford commits 14 percent of her salary _ about $800 per month _ toward her student loans, plus 2 percent to her 401(k). With the new perk, she plans to redirect the 2 percent to more aggressively pay off her loans or help her get through graduate school _ or maybe she’ll take a vacation.

“It lifts the burden, and I’m able to pursue what makes me happy,” said Monford, who lives in Irving, Texas.

Paige Jones, 24, of Evanston, said she plans to use the new benefit to more quickly pay down the “considerable debt” she has from graduate school at Northwestern University. Jones, who works as a communications management specialist at Abbott, now puts 5 percent of her salary to pay down student loans and 2 percent into her 401(k). The hit to her paycheck has squeezed other parts of her life, such as limiting where she can live and what kind of apartment and car she can afford.

“It really shows that Abbott cares about their employees and the longevity of their employees,” said Jones, who lives in Evanston. “I definitely think it makes me more loyal to the company.”

The mounting student debt crisis _ with outstanding loans nearing $1.5 trillion nationally _ has made student-loan assistance a sought-after employer benefit.

American Student Assistance, a nonprofit organization, surveyed 500 workers and found that student loan help ranked third in most important benefits, after health insurance and 401(k) and before other perks like professional membership payments and commuter benefits. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said they would stay with an employer for five years if it helped pay off student loans. In another survey, 65 percent of the 827 borrowers polled by student loan marketplace LendEDU said they consider student loan repayment assistance when looking for jobs.

Many employers are expressing interest in offering the perk. Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas surveyed 100 human resources executives last year and found 72 percent planned to offer student loan assistance, though only 14 percent had plans to implement the benefit soon.

The perk remains rare. Just 4 percent of employers offer programs that help employees repay student loans, a share that hasn’t budged in the past three years, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual survey of about 3,500 human resources professionals, released last week.

That doesn’t surprise Matt Goines, an account executive at Assurance, a Schaumburg-based insurance and benefits brokerage. About 75 percent of employers want to hear about student loan assistance, but only two of Goines’ clients have implemented programs to offer it, he said. That’s because many employers are trying to manage rising medical costs without affecting existing benefit levels.

Those that do offer student loan repayment, such as consulting firms and staffing companies, tend to have large populations of young employees with fewer health care claims and therefore lower insurance costs, Goines said. He is also seeing social service nonprofits use the perk to combat high turnover.

Most employers offering student loan repayment are large corporations, said Liz Supinski, director of data science at the Society for Human Resource Management. Small organizations may have a harder time affording it without a tax deduction for such loan repayments, she said.

“If some of the pending federal or state legislation, which proposes employer tax deductions or credits for loan repayment, is passed, I think we will see more uptake of this benefit by smaller employers,” Supinski said in an email.

Rise Interactive, a Chicago-based digital marketing agency, started offering student loan repayment last year after employee surveys revealed that people didn’t like the 401(k) plan. When it dug deeper, the company found that the problem wasn’t the plan but that many of its 200 employees _ who at the time were an average age of 28 _ couldn’t afford to participate in it, said Nicole Skaluba, director of employee services.

About a quarter of its employees now participate in the loan help program, which contributes $50 a month directly to their loans. Rise coordinates the payments through Peanut Butter, a Chicago-based tech company that manages the relationships with the loan holders so that Rise can avoid the paperwork and stay out of their employees’ private loan information, Skaluba said.

It remains to be seen if the benefit reduces turnover among young employees, notorious for moving from job to job, Skaluba said.

“In the longer term, I think it will bear better fruit on the retention side and the attraction side,” Skaluba said. “If they are considering two different companies, it may tip their decision-making our way as well.”

One concern that employers express when considering whether to offer student loan repayment programs is that employees without student loans may feel miffed, said Meera Oliva, chief marketing officer at Gradifi, a Boston-based company that helps employers implement student loan repayment programs. But that hasn’t played out, she said.

“Student loan debt is such a huge issue that even people who don’t have it feel good working at a company that addresses it,” she said.

Gradifi, which launched in 2016 with professional services giant PricewaterhouseCoopers its first client, grew to 350 clients by the end of last year, Oliva said.

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Employers have wide latitude to set the parameters of their loan help programs. Some offer the perk only to new college graduates or particular departments, and others increase the amount paid over time to entice people to stay, Oliva said. They can decide whether to set monetary caps or pay until students are no longer in debt. Most employers contribute $100 monthly and cap the contribution at $5,000 to $10,000.

About 8,000 employees are enrolled in PwC’s program, which pays $1,200 a year for up to six years, according to the company. The program can reduce participants’ loan principal and interest by as much as $10,000 and shorten payoff periods by up to three years, PwC said.