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Higher Salary or Better Benefits: What’s the Priority For Your Members?

By Heather Kerrigan | Dec 14, 2020

In times of shrinking budgets and economic uncertainty, employers look for different ways to cut costs. Often, this comes down to a debate over offering higher salary or better benefits. Navigating this decision is a delicate process, however, as there is no easy answer — many people say their benefits package is more important to them than salary, especially as they seek to ensure stability for themselves and their families. As a union, it's important that you prioritize this preference in your negotiations and work to keep benefits off the chopping block.

How Members View Benefits

Nearly half of all Americans receive their health benefits through an employer, former employer or union, either as the policyholder or as a dependent. As such, employer-sponsored health insurance and other benefits are top of mind for many American workers. According to numerous studies and surveys:

  • 80% of workers would choose a job with benefits over the same job with 30% more pay but no benefits.
  • Three in 10 workers would trade more money for better benefits.
  • 88% of employees said they'd give either some or heavy consideration to a job with a lower salary but better benefits.
  • 37% of adults say health insurance is the most important benefit they receive from an employer, more than any other benefit polled, even salary.
  • 76% of adults said health insurance is one of their top three most important benefits.

Benefits Provide a Boost to Employers

In times of uncertainty, employer-sponsored benefits offer members the peace of mind they need to feel secure. When you're bargaining with an employer looking to cut costs, maintaining an existing benefit level can be a difficult argument to make. However, there is data supporting the value of benefits for employers. One recent study found that a comprehensive benefits package is the number three driver of productivity and loyalty, number six-driver of engagement, and the sixth-largest factor in mitigating stress, burnout and depression. Replacing workers and compensating for time lost, low productivity or absenteeism is a big expense for employers. It's possible that, by maintaining current benefits, employers can save themselves costs elsewhere.

Getting Members What They Need

Health care costs are expected to continue rising in the coming decade and, in some households, make up the largest out-of-pocket expense. It's not surprising, then, that members place so much value on their health insurance benefits. When you enter negotiations with your members' employers, come prepared to protect the benefits they have. Base your proposal to maintain existing benefits on the opinions of your union's members. Poll them ahead of negotiations to find out what they feel is most important. Arm yourself with this data — along with anecdotal information about how members have used their benefits — and tie it into national studies showing how employers also benefit when their workers have access to good benefits.

As economic conditions become more uncertain, the debate over higher salary or better benefits is one you'll likely face. Knowing that your members place more value on their benefits as a means to protect themselves and their families can help you negotiate in good faith to maintain their existing benefits even in tight budgetary conditions.


Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.