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Flex schedules, raises, free SEPTA passes and kombucha on tap: How Philly CEOs hustle to keep workers

Post-pandemic, employers now offer flexible schedules and hybrid work. But some still rely on the power of human interaction.

ROAR For Good founder and CEO Yasmine Mustafa, top row, second from left, holds a team meeting virtually. "We hire from all over the world," said the Philadelphia-based executive.
ROAR For Good founder and CEO Yasmine Mustafa, top row, second from left, holds a team meeting virtually. "We hire from all over the world," said the Philadelphia-based executive.Read moreROAR

Catered lunches, gym memberships, and transit passes are just a few of the free perks that Philadelphia-area employers are dangling to lure new workers and retain current ones.

Workers — from frontline grocery employees to their office staffers — are also getting hefty pay raises, doubling in some cases for lower-paid colleagues. And although remote working has fallen from its pandemic height, the hybrid model — in which employees split time between home and the office — has become so entrenched that technology CEOs are resorting to free beer and kombucha on tap to entice workers back to the office, said Yasmine Mustafa, founder of the personal safety device firm ROAR for Good in Philadelphia.

“It’s challenging getting people back,” Mustafa said. “We’re fully remote, we hire from all over the world, and we’re not planning on going back in much” to the firm’s Center City headquarters.

Business executives are grappling with recruiting and retaining their workforce amid a tight labor market, high gasoline prices and inflation of 7.3% in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, just slightly below the national average. A hybrid-work model is as much about making workers happy as a precaution against the pandemic, business leaders said.

» READ MORE: Philly-area hospitals are paying nurses big bonuses to stave off shortage

The Inquirer reached out to local companies to learn more about the latest “return-to-work” plans and post-pandemic strategies. We heard from more than a dozen firms in the software, tourism, marketing, biotech, health care, petrochemical, manufacturing, and home-care sectors. Some workforces transitioned to partly or fully remote jobs, while frontline workers such as bank tellers and meatpackers with no choice but to show up in-person are winning per hour wage hikes.

In two years, the norm has shifted from 40 hours at an office to employers increasingly offering more flexibility in deciding where they get the job done. Just how to implement this new reality, however, is an experiment.

Regina A. Hairston, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, said her employees work one day a week in the office on a rotating schedule, and she granted them all a free membership to P4 Hub, Sulaiman Rahman’s coworking space for BIPOC entrepreneurs in Germantown.

Finding workers is so difficult that “it’s an employee’s market these days,” she said.

» READ MORE: Philly’s economy is improving, but workers demand higher wages and remote option: Philly Fed president

In a similar vein, Bruce Marable, CEO at EmployeeCycle, a software start-up in Philadelphia, said his company “has fully embraced remote work to hire the best team regardless of their location.”

“We have no plans to bring our team to an office, but do offer to cover expenses for coworking spaces local to each team member,” said Marable.

Retaining with raises

Several executives said that although remote work can be an enticing perk, it can also make losing employees easier. Sagefrog Marketing Group CEO Mark Schmukler said that with the widespread acceptance of remote work, he’s now competing for employees against larger companies in other metro areas.

“Fortunately, we have experienced extremely low turnover, and tremendous growth as we have increased salaries, raises, and bonuses,” he said, in some cases with raises of 5% or “significantly more.”

» READ MORE: Work-from-home could change Philadelphia’s economic outlook: Millennials hold the key

SageFrog, a business-to-business marketing agency, adopted a hybrid-work model in 2021, giving employees the option to work remotely or come to the Doylestown headquarters. “Our hybrid work model is here to stay as it will allow us to expand our radius for top talent as we continue to scale and grow,” Schmukler added.

It’s the same for Sanjay Khatnani, managing partner for J2 Solutions, a tech consulting firm in King of Prussia. “We are 100% remote since the pandemic and will continue being remote as an organization,” he said. “Productivity and our ability to recruit nationwide has helped us grow much faster.”

Other companies prefer that employees show up in person part time.

CSL Behring, a biotech company with 27,000 workers worldwide, requires employees who work remotely to come into the office a minimum of 25% of the time. The company has about 1,000 employees based at its King of Prussia headquarters.

“We made this decision based on employee feedback,” said CSL spokesman Anthony Farina. CSL sweetens the office requirement with a free on-campus fitness center and an on-site cafeteria service that takes food orders from an app.

Last year, Braskem America launched a hybrid work model without a minimum days requirement for office attendance. But the firm, a Philadelphia-based subsidiary of the Brazilian petrochemical company, requires that employees live a “commutable distance” from their physical work location and coordinate with their supervisor, according to an emailed statement from Braskem.

“We believe team members should have flexibility but in a structured format to ensure team members are available to each other during set times,” said Stacy Torpey, a Braskem spokesperson. “Additionally, we implemented an ergonomics package that provides team members a monthly stipend to help offset costs for internet, electricity, and other office items during hybrid work.”

In its hybrid model, Braskem started a voluntary return to the office twice a week — Tuesdays and Thursdays — and pays for team members’ parking if they drive to the office as well as offering catered meals during those days.

Can’t phone it in

Some industries, of course, can’t do remote work. Those businesses turned to higher wages to aid retention. Steven Turner, chief operation officer of Griswold Home Care, said the company gave its caregivers merit raises in 2021, and expects to do so again this year.

But Griswold doesn’t stop there, he added. “We’re really going over and above to make everyone feel included, whether we’re doing trivia session at day’s end, or a town hall to our franchise network,” Turner said.

Recently, Griswold hosted a companywide outing at the Northeast Philly Zoo, “so we have events that include spouses or loved ones, to make … [employees] feel it’s a great place to work.” Griswold has four company-owned office locations, one at its headquarters in Blue Bell, Wilkes-Barre, Bethlehem, and East Stroudsburg.

» READ MORE: The pandemic saw an exodus of health-care workers. Here’s how to win them back.

Wendell Young IV, president of Local 1776 Keystone State of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said his members, many in positions where remote work is not possible, have been receiving wage hikes. The union represents about 35,000 members working in grocery stores, drugstores, food processing plants, government services, manufacturing facilities, nursing homes, professional offices, Pennsylvania’s Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores, and medical cannabis facilities, according to the organization’s website. Members are located throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and Ohio.

“We have some labor contracts for members that are going up more than ever before,” Young said.

In particular, workers in meatpacking and other food processing facilities “have seen significant gains. Entry-level jobs that four or five years ago paid $10 to $12 an hour are starting now at $20 an hour, even with no experience,” he said.

Workers in frontline jobs such as supermarkets and retail have seen their wages jump $6 an hour in the last two years, starting at $18 an hour at the lower end of the pay scale.

Easing back to the office

A Pew Research Center survey found that roughly 6 in 10 U.S. employees were working from home all or most of the time. That’s a decline from 71% in October 2020, but still far above the 23% of U.S. workers who teleworked before the pandemic.

“The impetus for working from home has shifted considerably since 2020,” the Pew report said. “Today, more workers say they are doing this by choice rather than necessity,” according to Pew’s report, issued last month.

» READ MORE: Women and low-wage workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic

Looking beyond the pandemic, 60% of workers with jobs that can be done from home told Pew that they would like to work from home all or most of the time once the health crisis is over. Pew surveyed 10,237 U.S. adults from across the country for the study from Jan. 24 to Jan. 30.

At the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board, the return to office has prompted conversations with employees about COVID’s impact.

“We’ve been trying to be understanding and allow for in-person scheduling flexibility in terms of the number of hours at the office,” said Rachel Riley, the group’s associate vice president of communications.

The board routinely provides lunch to the staff “multiple times throughout each month. It’s also a way to support and promote restaurants who are business members” of the board. As for hybrid work, “We have been strategically phasing in-office workdays back into the schedule,” asking employees to be in the office at least two days a week of their choosing, increasing to three days in the spring.

Incomes vs. inflation

The worst inflation in 40 years and skyrocketing fuel prices have rocked many people’s finances. Despite faster growth in earnings for lower-wage workers, annual earnings last year did not keep pace with inflation for low-income households and barely kept up for middle-income households, a February research paper by Wharton Budget Model found.

» READ MORE: U.S. inflation increased 7.9% over the last year, largest spike since 1982

To offset higher gas prices, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is extending hybrid work for nonclinical staff and offering a new student loan repayment benefit, said CHOP spokeswoman Emily Ditomo. Full-time employees will get a $200 CHOP contribution each month and up to $2,400 a year to repay student loans. Launched in January, CHOP’s program has already enrolled more than 1,100 employees out of more than 15,000 total.

CHOP also enhanced its commuter benefits because many of its facilities are within walking distance of public transportation. The hospital subsidizes 75% of commuter costs up to $150 per month. .

SEPTA launched a pilot program that provides full-time Drexel University faculty and professional staff free access to all SEPTA transit. Under SEPTA Key Advantage, Drexel employees can ride on SEPTA transit for work and personal use, said spokeswoman Niki Gianakaris, avoiding traffic hassles and increased commuting expenses, as The Inquirer reported. As one of the region’s largest private employers, Drexel joined Penn Medicine and Wawa to partner with SEPTA on the six-month program.

» READ MORE: Penn Medicine, Drexel and Wawa will provide free SEPTA passes to employees

Post-pandemic, the Franklin Mint Credit Union in Chadds Ford now asks its 340 employees to show up in branch offices only six to 10 days a month depending on the team, said president and CEO Michael Magnavita.

“It helps that they only have to commute a few days a week. We can’t do a lot about gas prices, but we can control that,” he said.

During year-end performance reviews, the credit union salaries adjust for inflation, typically 2% to 3% annually.

“But now that we’ve had 7% inflation over a six-month period, we can’t give everyone a 7% increase,” he said. “Hopefully, inflation settles down.”

Come on back

Not all companies see the shift to remote work as permanent.

Pennsauken-based Scrub Daddy, a maker of sponges and scour pads, has called back its staff to the office full time. Company CEO Aaron Krause said he mandated vaccines and full in-office work last June.

During the height of the pandemic, Scrub Daddy increased wages 10% and offered free meals, Krause said. “While this did expire as we all came back to the office, we also increased wages and gave generous bonuses to offset both the fuel increases as well as overall inflationary concerns,” he said.

The company made the headquarters a more welcoming place, Krause added, “with fountains, waterfalls, bridges, rivers, outdoor work spaces with WiFi, and music, coffee bars and even added koi fish ponds in the offices.”

The majority enjoy seeing each other, Krause said. “Don’t discount the power of true human face-to-face interaction.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at