Anything an employer provides to you beyond cash wages is a benefit. Some benefits are required by law, while others are offered by companies as a way to attract quality employees.

Federally Mandated Benefits

The federal government requires employers to offer certain benefits to their employees. These benefits include:

Unemployment Insurance:

This benefit provides you with a source of income for a pre-determined period of time if you lose your job. Employers pay the cost and are legally required to provide it from day one.

Social Security Taxes:

Again, this benefit is not something you think about, but employers are required to match the taxes paid by employees into this program, which provides monthly benefits to retirees.

Health Insurance:

This is not actually legally required yet, but the new federal Health Care Reform Law of 2010 requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide coverage for all full-time employees or pay a penalty. It does not go into effect until 2014 and does not include part-time employees. Smaller companies will not be forced to provide it, but many already do, if they can afford to.

COBRA Health Insurance Coverage:

This program requires employers with at least 20 employees to allow most terminated employees to keep their group health coverage for up to 18 months. It also provides additional protection for spouses and dependent children.

Unpaid Medical Leave:

This is more of a right than a benefit, but the Family and Medical Leave Act requires that most employers with at least 50 employees grant unpaid leave for a variety of legitimate medical and family situations.

State Mandated Benefits

Some benefits are not required under federal law, but may be required by some states.

Worker's Compensation Insurance:

This benefit is essentially invisible to you unless you are injured on the job. Then it will pay for medical care and lost wages. All states require that companies provide it from the first day you begin work.

Disability Insurance:

This benefit replaces your income if you are temporarily unable to work. Short-term disability usually covers your full salary for a few months. If you are still unable to work, long-term disability will provide you with a percentage of your income for an additional defined time. Not all states require it.

Paid Holidays:

Despite the designation of certain holidays as "Federal Holidays," the federal government does not actually require private sector employers to grant any paid holidays. A few holidays are considered legal holidays in all states, while others are only recognized in certain states. Nonetheless, many employers grant paid time off for either six or ten "Federal Holidays."

Optional Benefits

Several other benefits are not required by any laws, although they are often legally regulated if an employer chooses to provide them.

Paid Time Off:

Paid vacation and sick days are not legally required, but companies that do offer them must do so equally for all employees. Companies may provide it differently between certain groups of employees. For example, only full-time employees may be eligible or the amount of time off provided may depend on number of service years. Some states require that employers pay you for any unused vacation in your last paycheck if you quit.

Retirement Plans:

The majority of employers try to provide some type of retirement plan, which must comply with the rules in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Employers are allowed to impose a waiting period before new employees can enroll. Plans come in two types: - Defined benefit: These plans provide a pre-determined monthly benefit in retirement. This type of plan is not common in private sector companies any more. - Defined contribution: These are the 401k and 403b plans in which employees can set aside pre-tax dollars for retirement. The employer may also contribute matching funds up to a set percentage. Benefits at retirement depend on how well the investments performed. There are also rules about how much the retiree can withdraw and when.

Life Insurance:

In general, the employer pays for a minimum amount of coverage, and the employee can elect to purchase additional coverage. Even when benefits are not legally required, many companies recognize that a good benefits package can make up for a mediocre salary and try to provide as much as they can afford.