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Making Workers Feel Appreciated - Marriott Extends the Temporary Suspension
 of the 30-hour Work Week Requirement for Health Care Benefits

By Chen May Yee, Star Tribune, MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 20, 2010 --When the bad economy slashed occupancy rates at hotels everywhere, Ben Asante got worried.

Asante, who is diabetic, works in room service at the Minneapolis Marriott City Center. If his workweek fell below 30 hours, he was in danger of losing his health insurance.

Luckily for Asante, Marriott International's chief executive, Bill Marriott, decided to temporarily suspend that 30-hour floor during the recession, citing something his father used to say: "If you take good care of your employees, they take good care of your customers."

Said Asante: "That was great news for me."

It also helped push Marriott to the top of the Star Tribune Top Workplaces survey for medium-sized companies.

Like Marriott, many of the medium-sized companies that made the list are service-oriented businesses -- home health care, health insurance, bike retailers, a medical center, a hair salon and a grocery co-op, among others.

These companies -- with 150 to 499 employees -- are often in an awkward position. They're not General Mills or Best Buy and can't afford the rich benefits and perks -- think on-site child care and dry-cleaning pickup -- that are par for the course at giant employers. But they've been around long enough that they need to do more than small businesses to hang on to their people.

Getting creative

To compete, many focus on making employees feel appreciated. Many offer health insurance or at least contribute something, even if they can't sponsor the bulk of it.

They also get creative. For example, Quality Bicycle Products in Bloomington hosts monthly breakfasts for bike commuters. Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch offers Summer Time Off, an additional seven paid days to enjoy precious sunny days. At Minneapolis ad agency Periscope, employees can bring their dogs to work anytime.

In terms of splash, it's hard to beat Bloomington-based home care company Right at Home. Co-owners Paul Blom and Bob White have made it a company tradition to treat more than 200 employees to an annual meal and show at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. When people ask why a little company would spend up to $20,000 on one night of festivities, Blom replies: "I could give people a 3-cents-an-hour raise, or I could put up an event that everybody's talking about for a year."

The 585-room Minneapolis Marriott, which is part of the worldwide Marriott hotel group, is the second-biggest in the Twin Cities after the Hilton.

When the recession hit in 2008, the number of guests fell by a quarter.

"It was the most severe downturn in our business, worse than 9/11," said area general manager John Buntemeyer.

The hotel had long provided health benefits to employees who average 30 hours a week, subsidizing about 80 percent of health premiums. With business down, it became apparent to Marriott management that many employees would fall below that limit.

Last year, Marriott temporarily dropped that 30-hour requirement, then extended the policy into this year.

The company also upped efforts to cross-train employees. Housekeeping staff could pick up hours waiting tables at banquets. Those who worked at the concierge counter spent time tending bar.

Keeping good people

Top employers understand the value of hanging on to good people.

Hammer Residences, a Wayzata-based company that provides services to people with disabilities, has an unusually high retention rate, said Kim Hansen, its director of human resources. One employee who moved to Dallas because her husband got a job in Texas works remotely, supervising the manager of a group home.

Hansen joined as a student intern in the late 1970s, helping people learn how to take the city bus downtown. "Many of us came to Hammer as a pit stop when we were in college," Hansen said. "Thirty years later, we're still here."

Companies on the list also listen to their employees.

For years, employees at Coles Salon had asked founder Doug Coles for health benefits, a rarity at small salons. As the company grew from one salon in Burnsville to five in the south metro, "it's been a dream of Doug's to be able to offer benefits," said Chief Operating Officer Melissa Hanson.

Three years ago, the salon introduced a cafeteria plan. Those who work at least 37.5 hours get $2,000 a year toward buying insurance, with smaller amounts for those who work fewer hours. For a young, healthy person, that amount might just cover premiums for a high-deductible health plan. But for someone with a family, or some health issues, it may only cover a quarter of premiums.

Employees can use the money on premiums or out-of-pocket medical costs or dependent care.

Also unusual for a hair salon is Coles' employee stock ownership plan, where employees are given stock in the company, to cash out when they leave or retire.

And the reward for 20 years of service? A diamond tennis bracelet.

Chen May Yee --612-673-7434


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