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Empties wait to be cleaned at a Labatt brewery in London, Ont. Labatt announced last year that it would gradually be eliminating its free beer for life program for retirees.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

A free burger and a cob of corn may not seem like a large budget expense for one of Canada's leading health centres. And in reality it's not, says Marilyn Reddick, vice-president of human resources at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Yet the Toronto-based hospital cut its annual barbecue for its retirees about five years ago amidst budget tightening.

"It was an old Sunnybrook tradition," she says. "But as money gets tight, you have to make decisions, and even though it wasn't that costly, we were also concerned about the optics."

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Sunnybrook is in good company among leading employers in Canada. Both the private and public sectors are engaged in a balancing act between providing highly prized retirement packages and economic realities.

Employers may strive to maintain retirement pension plans for existing retirees and current employees in the future – an essential tool to attract and retain skilled workers. But some so-called "retirement perks" are being scaled back or eliminated altogether.

A recent example is Labatt Breweries of Canada – one of the country's two largest brewers – which announced last year that it would gradually be eliminating its free beer for life program for retirees.

While last call for free alcohol may cause some initial consternation, rolling back this type of benefit isn't likely to produce a lasting bad taste in the mouth of workers, says one human resources consultant.

"The minute you take away something away from someone, there's always going to be disappointment," says Julie Farnsworth with Peak Human Resources in Barrie, Ont.

"But at the end of the day, it usually dies pretty quickly because most of the labour force will likely say 'That doesn't matter much to me because it doesn't really scale to any inconvenience financially.' "

Simply put, Ms. Farnsworth says most retirees and workers are more concerned about having a decent retirement income from their pension plan rather than perks like a free case of beer.

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Still, retirement benefits are about more than the pension. Many employers are aware of this, she adds, recognizing that employees are interested in services such as free financial planning prior to retirement.

Some organizations even offer assistance to help retiring workers adjust to more than the change in their financial situation.

"They go to work every day and have that routine, and then all of a sudden it's gone," she says. "There can be a big psychological impact for them."

That's why many employers are offering retirees the chance to remain engaged in the workplace.

The University of Toronto is among those offering retired employees opportunities to continue to participate in academic life.

"We provide a number of programs and benefits for our retired faculty and librarians, including things like tuition waivers and opportunities to volunteer so they can stay connected with the campus and the community," says Kelly Hannah-Moffat, vice-president of human resources at University of Toronto.

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"We hope that by keeping our retirees connected it increases age diversity on campus as well as capitalizes on some of their expertise and knowledge."

Some retired academics, for example, are engaged in contract work for the university. And much like other employers, the university also offers phased-in retirement.

"Between the ages of 55 and 68 for librarians and faculty, they can scale down their responsibilities over a three-year period," Ms. Hannah-Moffat says.

"We find that if people want to work and are able to work, they continue to stay and significantly contribute."

Sunnybrook also looks to leverage the invaluable experience and knowledge of its retired work force.

"You can retire full-time and can come back and work casual so you can set up an arrangement where you work one day a week or whatever, but you still keep one foot in the door while officially, you're retired," Ms. Reddick says.

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Those who retire early are often called upon to work on special projects for the hospital.

"They're brilliant health-care workers with this great knowledge so they often are hired back to do these one-off projects because nobody in-house has the time."

The hospital also has a very robust volunteer network of retired staff.

"They certainly aren't paid for it, but it's not about the money at that point, and they have a valuable role that helps our patients," she says, adding retirees make up a significant number of its 1,200-strong volunteer base.

Still retirement perks – such as medical benefits – remain widely prized among employees and retirees, including at the U of T and Sunnybrook.

Extended medical coverage is a big boon for retirees because the cost of purchasing benefits on their own is generally higher while providing less coverage, Ms. Reddick says.

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"At Sunnybrook retirees still have to pay the cost of the benefits, but the cost within our group plan is much less than if they were getting benefits on their own."

Ms. Farnsworth says medical benefits coverage, however, is often being scaled back, particularly in the private sector.

"Providing fully insured benefits can involve astronomical costs, and for companies it's hard to gauge how much retirees are going to tap into this benefit," she says.

"To put more certainty in the cost, what some companies have done with health benefits is offer their retirees a health spending account, so they can put a hard cap on it."

Ms. Reddick says as budgets tighten in both the public and private sectors, most retirees will opt for getting a little help paying for medication over a perk such as free beer for life.

"The extras are nice to have, but they're being diminished as companies are more concerned about whether they can actually afford them or not," she says. "Having a good pension and health-care benefits are the most important thing."

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