Some companies host employee picnics. ARC Specialties takes its 65 employees and their families on annual trips, including cruises to Mexico, weekend getaways to San Antonio and deep-sea fishing expeditions in Port Aransas.
In June, employees and spouses spent a few days at a resort in Cozumel, with all expenses paid.
"I like the people who work here," said ARC Specialties' president, Dan Allford, who started his robotics company in his garage in 1983. "I enjoy watching them having a good time."
The annual trips -- along with gifts of a Rolex watch after 10 years of service and catered lunches every Friday -- are wildly popular. That means Allford can focus on the business of making robots for oil field equipment manufacturers rather than worrying about staff turnover.
"This is the best place I've ever worked," said Noe Trevino, a welder who started at ARC Specialties as a janitor's helper.
Through Allford's urging, Trevino started taking welding classes, paid for by the company, and hopes to get his associate degree next year.
ARC Specialties is one of the area's best places to work, according to the annual Top Workplaces survey conducted for the Chronicle by WorkplaceDynamics. It's one of many companies on the list that offer generous and sometimes unusual benefits.
Some perks are fun. Others go right to the employees' bottom line, making it easier to save for retirement or receive health care when companies are picking up 100 percent of the cost. Many of the companies make it easier for employees to juggle their personal lives or improve their health through diet and exercise programs.
The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa enjoys holiday time, and one of its cherished traditions is its annual Turkey Toss.
A few days before Thanksgiving, employees are summoned to an out-of-the-way service corridor that has been cleared so it sort of resembles a bowling alley. Each employee is announced with much fanfare and presented with a frozen turkey.
The waiters, cooks and housekeepers then fling their frozen poultry carcasses down the hallway, trying to hit a line of soda cans. Distances are marked with sticky notes and the informal contest -- which has been going for two decades -has been launched.
"We have some real athletes," said Anne Nolen, training manager for the Houstonian.
In a two-hour window, 450 to 500 frozen turkeys fly down the hallway, she said. It's more of a "turkey scoot," she said, because none of the frozen birds actually gets airborne.
At the end of the corridor -- after the distance has been measured and recorded -- employees bag their birds and take them home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Virtually all of the 275 employees at Texas First Bank participate in its 401(k) plan. It's not hard to figure out why.
The bank matches employees' contribution dollar-for-dollar up to 8 percent of their salaries, said Scott Owen, human resources director in La Marque. After six years, the employer's portion is 100 percent vested.
Texas First Bank launched the attractive match in part because it wanted to reinforce the role the bank plays in financial planning, Owen said. It's also a selling point for recruiting new employees and retaining existing ones.
But it's not the only perk. A week or two before Christmas each year, top bank officers fan out to its 23 locations with special envelopes. Each employee who has been on board for at least a year gets an extra month's salary.
It's very exciting, said Owen, describing the tradition begun in 1973 as employees cluster around when the officers arrive with their fistful of good cheer. Everyone shakes hands, or gets a big hug, and employees are thanked for their hard work.
Other perks help working parents.
One of the biggest problems these moms and dads face is scrambling when the baby sitter calls in sick or their school system celebrates a holiday and there is no one to watch the kids. Some companies have launched backup child care with center-based or in-home services.
Microsoft, which has about 200 employees in the Houston area, has added backup elder care. Each employee receives up to 100 hours of care per employee per calendar year. For a nominal cost of $4 an hour, a certified nursing assistant, home companion or other trained professional will provide in-home care.
Adults who need care are not required to live with the Microsoft employee or even reside in the same state. Care can be scheduled up to 30 days in advance or on the same day.
"We wanted to provide a nationwide program that would assist our employees with a safety net for those days when regular care arrangements fell through, as this tends to be a very stressful time for employees," Microsoft representative Tracey L. Shavers Jr. wrote in an email.
Health and fitness programs are popular at many companies. To make sure employees actually use the workout facilities, Black Elk Energy launched an incentive program. Black Elk will pay the monthly membership fee for employees who use one of the health club locations eight or more times each month.
It was a Christmas gift to employees last year, human resource specialist Hilary McVay said. The CEO took a tour of the workout facilities and figured everyone would benefit.
So far, about 80 employees, or 67 percent of the 120 employees who live near one of the gyms, are going often enough to take advantage of the perk. That, in turn, has contributed to a reduction in health insurance premiums, McVay said.
Black Elk, which pays 100 percent of the premium cost, saw its rates fall 8 percent starting in June, she said. They've never dropped that much in one year, she added.
Nor have employees ever looked so slim and trim.
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