You should be milking your work benefits — this is how to do it

By: Danielle Kubes on August 9, 2017
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I’m pretty sure I need glasses. It’s starting to get hard to drive at night and I have to zoom in on my computer screen a lot. But getting glasses would require seeing an optometrist … and that costs money.

As a freelance writer, I’m stuck without benefits — every massage,  dental cleaning, and vacation day, I pay for myself.  But at least I’m used to it. The only time I ever had health benefits was in school and, unfortunately, I never took advantage of them.

Unlike me, luckily, most employed Canadians have some form of benefits through their work.

Although you pay for them with a percentage of your salary, if you manage to use them effectively, their value can far exceed the dollar amount you pay.

Workplace benefits, according to the HR council of Canada, may include health, dental, vision, parental leave, disability insurance, pension contributions, daycare, tuition reimbursement, sick days, vacation, as well as flexible work arrangements.

It’s difficult to calculate the exact value of these benefits, but some, like pension contributions, disability insurance and dental plans, are worth their weight in gold and can easily add tens of thousands of dollars to your overall compensation package.

Take Jenn Czobel, a sales associate in Toronto, for example. She has chronic health conditions, which means she’s had a lot of experience over the years in using and maximizing her benefits.

“I’m on different medications, which would probably cost a lot if I didn't have benefits,” she says. ”Probably to the tune of like, $500-600 a month.”

That means her total compensation really adds up to an additional $7,200 a year.

So how can you milk your workplace benefit plan for all it’s worth?

Start before you even get your job

Don’t be afraid to ask your employer questions about the plan and don’t be afraid to ask for more. “There’s always, always room to negotiate vacation days and sick days,” says Ron Kaidar, an HR expert and Managing Director of Go2Staffing in Toronto.

Once you’ve researched, negotiated and accepted the benefit package, review it in detail. By knowing exactly what your plan covers, you won’t miss out on anything you’re eligible for.

So every January, sit down with your insurance pamphlet and look at the services you may be interested in throughout the year.  Since benefits reset yearly, you want to avoid the December rush of appointments.

By reading your plan you’ll also avoid instances of overlap.

Many people, for example, don't know that benefit plans often include travel insurance and needlessly buy additional coverage for vacations.

Not all insurance providers are made equal

“The major thing is how fast can you get your money and how challenging is it to get,” Kaidar says. “Sometimes it can be ridiculous.”

Some providers make you fill out a letter that you have to fax. They likely force you to take extra steps to get your money in the hopes you’ll find it too much of a hassle.

Kaidar says to ask your employer and other employees about their experience getting reimbursed, and make sure you understand the process.

Czobel knows this challenge all too well.

“I got burned by benefits,” she says. “There was one time I didn’t ask my dentist to send the estimate through my insurance company and get approval. I thought I was going to get 80% back and only ended up getting less than 50% back because there were certain restrictions that weren’t listed.”

So make sure to have a medical professional send a request for approval before embarking on any pricey healthcare.

Get creative about maximizing your benefits

Czobel recommends thinking outside the box. Your benefits may cover prescription glasses every year, for example, but you may already have a pair you like and don’t need to change the lens. “So try to get a prescription pair of sunglasses you can wear while driving,” she says.

Another way to be creative is to select healthcare providers that provide multiple services. Let’s say you’re feeling drained and really want to see a naturopath, but it’s not covered. Well, a massage might be, so find a masseuse who also does naturopathy.

The essential take away about benefits? Don’t forget about them!

“People are so concerned with ‘I want benefits” and all that,” Kaidar says.  “And then they end up never using them.”