A time clock (Image: Thinkstock)

Starting next year, U.S. employees at insurance company Unum Group will have a choice: The company will put money toward their student loans, if the worker gives up five paid vacation days.

The new perk is a creative twist on an increasingly popular benefit. Confronted by a tight labor market and ever more indebted applicants, about 4% of big companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resources Management say they’re helping their employees repay their loans with cash payments of up to $250 a month.

The deal for Unum’s 8,500 workers, though, is different: Cash for debt in exchange for unused vacation days. Each day is worth an employee’s hourly rate for an eight-hour day. Parents who share responsibility for a child’s loans also qualify to cash in.

(Related: Time Is the Most Popular Perk: Unum)

“We thought it was a more creative method,” said Carl Gagnon, who runs financial well-being programs at the Chattanooga-based insurer.

Unum estimates that around 30% of its U.S. workforce will take advantage of the benefit. On average, Unum employees carry $32,000 in debt, with payments of $350 a month, according to the company’s internal research. How much workers can earn for their vacation days depends on their salary, but the company estimates an average of about $1,200 a year.

Jimmy Valentine, a 30-year-old employee at Unum with $22,000 in debt, said he plans to cash in the maximum amount of vacation days every year until his loans are paid off. Like most Americans, he doesn’t use all of his vacation days, and with the benefit, he can apply an additional $1,120 a year to his debt. “I should take more days off,” he said. “But I continue to work to make sure I keep up with everything.”

A recent viral Buzzfeed essay pointed to long hours, low wages and high debt burdens as a triple albatross for millennials, but Gagnon doesn’t think the company’s posing an unfair choice. Unum employees get at least 28 days of paid time off, nearly double the 15 paid days the average U.S. worker gets, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Giving up five, that gives people ample time,” Gagnon said. “It offers choice.”

— Read Best & Worst Cities for Student Loan Repayment, on ThinkAdvisor.

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