Beyond salary: understanding your benefits as a dental employee

When you’re negotiating your dental associate contract, salary is important — but it’s not the whole story. Rather, make sure you’re also considering which benefits (or “perks”) are offered. In fact, a strong benefits package can more than compensate for a lower salary, depending on your priorities.

Benefit packages often include:

  • Health insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Paid vacation and/or sick days
  • 401k contributions
  • Bonuses

A dentist employment contract may also provide for professional liability insurance, tuition reimbursement, profit sharing and continuing education. By understanding what’s most important to you, you can negotiate for the things that matter.

The combination of compensation and benefits is sometimes referred to as “the compensation package.”

A potential dentist-employee should carefully review and understand the benefits package being offered by a potential employer. Benefits may have a strong influence on your “lifestyle” — potentially affecting whether you can:

  • Choose your physician
  • Attend a CE course
  • Take extended vacation time
  • Save for retirement

Certain or all of the benefits may be expressly enumerated in the contract, or the main body of the contract may reference attachments to the contract providing details on these benefits. Sometimes, the contract may merely refer to the practice’s policy (or employment) manual.

Common dental employee benefits may include:

Retirement plan availability, such as a 401k, potentially with an employer match
Worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance, with premiums paid by the employer
Health insurance, with the employer paying some portion of the premium for single or family coverage. Additional coverage may be available at the employee’s expense.
Prescription plan, including designated co-pays
Life insurance, with the employer paying premiums for up to X times the employee’s annual salary
Paid time off, including vacation and sick time, plus holidays, stipulating how the employee accrues this time, how it can be pro-rated for part-time staff, and how it can be used
“Cafeteria” plan, including various types of supplemental insurance (such as disability, accident, cancer) and flexible spending accounts (medical, dependent care)
Bereavement leave, designating up to X paid days annually for arranging or attending the funeral of family members
Professional CE and tuition reimbursement, designating up to X paid days and $X for approved continuing education expenses, library references, or professional dues

The employer may also expressly state that it is not providing certain benefits, such as mileage or fuel costs, cell phone or other expenses.

Employer-provided benefits are discretionary for the employer; other than certain “benefits” that are required by law (such as freedom from sexual harassment, family medical leave in certain situations). In many jurisdictions, the employer is not required to provide any benefits whatsoever — not paid sick days or holidays, not vacation.

If it is not specifically stated that a benefit is provided, you should not assume that it is. If there is a benefit that you, as the employee, believe should be provided (or that you believe you have been promised), it is best to raise it at the contract stage and to get it in writing.

Make sure you fully understand the benefits that are being offered (including any limitations and restrictions, such as waiting periods) and consider the value to the employee (including work-life balance issues).

As you review what is (and is not) being offered, think about what’s most important to you. You may be able to negotiate a compromise that suits you both. It never hurts to ask!

4 things to ask about when negotiating your benefits

Vesting: Sometimes the employee’s right to a benefit does not “vest” until he/she has worked for employer for X number of days). For example, the employee may not be entitled to paid sick leave until they have worked for the employer for 60 days.

Rollover: With rollover policies, employees are allowed to transfer unused vacation days from one calendar year to his/her vacation time in the next year. An employer may set a limit on how many days may be transferred (“rolled over”) this way.

Professionalism: Licensing, continuing education and memberships. Most states have continuing education (CE) requirements for dentists seeking to remain licensed. CE classes take time and cost money. An employee dentist will want to know if his/her employer will cover the cost of any such classes and if the employer will allow paid time off to attend such classes. Also, some employers may wish (or even require) that employee-dentists to be members of certain professional organizations or associations; the employee should want to know whether the employer will subsidize or pay such membership fees.

Malpractice insurance: An employee-dentist should know whether the employer will pay for (or contribute to an employee’s payments to maintain) malpractice insurance, this assistance may be counted as part of the benefits package.

See more details and sample benefits clauses in chapter 4 of Dental Employment Agreements: The Devil’s In the Details.