More employers try to help workers pay student loans

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NEW YORK (AP) — Employers are discovering that making it easier for workers to pay off their student loans helps to attract and keep a happy workforce.

More and more companies are helping workers refinance their debts at better rates, giving employees extra cash for loan payments, or even paying their workers' lenders directly. It's a major benefit for millennials — people 35 and under — who are struggling to pay thousands of dollars in student debts as they enter the workforce.

"It's actually helped me quite a lot," says Christina Lin, a graphic designer who sliced her $3,800 in student loan debt in half within six months with help from her employer, ChowNow.

This is not as simple as it sounds: Many college graduates end up owing multiple lenders, and the tax implications can be complicated. Employers also want to make sure the money goes to the right place. This has created a niche for a handful of startups helping employers deliver the benefit.

Just 3 percent of employers helped workers repay student loans last year, according to a survey of more than 460 human resource managers conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.

But more are starting to offer it, including some big-name companies.

Beginning in July, New York-based accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers plans to give certain employees with student loan debt as much as $1,200 a year for up to six years. Kronos Inc., a software company in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, will pay employees up to $500 a year toward student loan debts for as long as they need it. And some U.S. employees of Paris-based Natixis Global Asset Management can get $5,000 to go toward their federal loans, plus more if they stay with the company for more than five years.

Microsoft Corp. gives its workers the option to refinance student loans at discounted interest rates thanks to the company's relationship with online lender SoFi. It doesn't cost Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft anything, but SoFi says some of its 200 clients pay the lender to deliver even lower rates for their workers.

The class of 2014 graduated with an average of $28,950 in student loan debt, up 2 percent from the year before, according to the Project on Student Loan Debt. Employers say workers tell them their debts make it impossible to save for retirement or buy a home.

"Millennials are being crushed by student debt," says Michael Fenlon, the global talent leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, which enlisted a startup, Gradifi, to handle the new benefit.

Gradifi and focus on processing the payments by employers; each say they already are working with about 100 companies each to provide it. Others, including SoFi, Credible and CommonBond, enable companies to help refinance their workers' student debts with more manageable rates and payment plans.

EdAssist, which has managed tuition payment benefits for employers for about nine years, began offering student loan repayments as well last year.

"Millennials are asking for it," says Bruce Elliott, a manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management.

That matters, because millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest cohort in the workforce last year, according to the Pew Research Center, and their options are improving along with the job market. The vast majority say their ability to pay student loans would affect whether they take a job, according to a survey by the American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that helps borrowers manage their student debt.

Lin pays about $150 on her debts each month, and ChowNow chips in another percentage, about $40. The Los Angeles company, which powers online and app ordering for restaurants, now pays up to $500 per year per employee, and plans to increase that to $1,000 this year.

"It's harder to hire great talent, and this is another great tool to do that," says Christopher Webb, the CEO of ChowNow, which uses to handle the benefit.

Workers need to examine the benefits carefully. If refinancing, they should make sure the terms are better than what they already pay. Those with federal loans may lose protections and perks by switching to other lenders. And loan payments — like cash — are currently taxable as income.

Legislation in Congress could change that. The Employer Participation in Student Loan Assistance Act, for example, proposes making up to $5,250 a year in employer payments for student loan debts tax-free for the worker, and eligible for tax breaks for the employer. The bill introduced in October is sponsored by Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, and has been gathering co-sponsors.


Follow Joseph Pisani at . His work can be found at .

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