New employee perk: $100 a month for your student loans

Elaine Florentino landed a job as an accountant as soon as she graduated college, but she still worries about paying off her student debt.

Luckily her employer, PwC, is offering some help. The auditing firm was one of the first companies to give employees some extra cash -- on top of their salary -- that goes directly toward their student loan bills.

PwC launched its Student Loan Paydown benefit in January 2016, just a few months after Florentino started her job. Eligible workers receive $100 a month for up to six years.

She borrowed about $57,000 to get her Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Bentley University, a private school in Massachusetts. About 20% of her take-home pay goes to her student loans.

"When I got my salary, I thought it was so much money. But then I started making my budget and it became real to me how much my student loans would affect my day-to-day living," said Florentino, a 25-year-old single mom.

The student loan benefit allows her to feel more hopeful about her financial future.

"The emotional toll is lighter. It made me feel like I'll eventually be financially free," she said.

More than 8,200 PwC employees have signed up for the benefit since the launch, the company said. It's offered to all associates and senior associates, and 38% of those workers have taken advantage.

It's expected to help recruit and retain good workers, said Mike Fenlon, PwC's chief people officer.

"It strengthens our brand. We're proud to have created a benefit that's relevant to a much broader societal issue," he said.

More than two-thirds of undergraduate students currently leave college with some debt. On average, they owe $30,000.

Aetna, Fidelity, Prudential and the city of Memphis are some of the biggest employers to launch a student loan repayment program over the past two years. About 4% of companies offered a student loan repayment benefit last year, up from 3% the year before, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

New York Life Insurance Company launched one in September that gives workers $170 a month for up to five years.

Luis Batista, a human resource associate there, expects the benefit to shave six years off his loan repayment time.

He borrowed more than $20,000 to get his bachelor's degree despite choosing a college with in-state tuition, holding several jobs throughout college, and starting to pay off his debt before graduating.

"Personally, I feel blessed to work here," he said.

More than 450 New York Life employees have signed up for the repayment benefit in its first month. It's offered to the company's 6,400 employees that are considered below middle-management level.

The company's other workers are still eligible for counseling services to help them decide on the best way to pay down their student debt. That includes parents who borrowed money for their children's college education.

The counseling is provided by Student Loan Genius, which is contracted by New York Life to help administer the benefit. Most employers hire an outside firm to handle payments made to the student loan servicers. That way, they can steer clear of their employees' financial information.

Student loan benefit terms vary by employer. Some match a worker's student loan payment with an additional pre-tax contribution to their 401(k) instead. Contributions made to their student loan payments are currently counted as taxable income, unlike those made to a retirement account.

That can make things tricky for employers who want to offer a bigger student loan payment benefit. Dr. Daniel Nam, a dentist in California, employs just one other dentist, but wanted to offer a student loan benefit to offset her extremely high dental school loans. He worked with an accountant and the administrator he hired, FutureFuel, to determine how much he could offer his employee without bumping her into a higher tax bracket.

Dentists have some of the largest student loan debts. His employee, Dr. Amy Blake, borrowed more than $450,000. Together, they came up with a benefit amount that will grow as she stays with the company.

"It was very important to hire another dentist who was the right fit for my practice, and to hire someone who would stay," Dr. Nam said.

Without the student loan benefit, Dr. Blake considered working at a community clinic so that she might qualify for public service loan forgiveness. But future funding of those those programs is uncertain.

"Working with Dr. Nam was a better option. In exchange for me making a commitment to the practice, he's offering meaningful loan repayment," she said.