How Do I Compare Two Job Offers?

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I am an Australian, and it looks like my wife and I are about to wind up working in the US. The offers are from San Francisco and Portland.
What I was wanting to ask is: here in Australia I know the sort of questions to ask about a new job. Things like "do you pay overtime?", or "what is your policy on long holidays?" What I don't know about is the US, and which questions are sensible to ask to find out the things that make a good employer and a bad employer different.
For example: I presume I should be asking about their employee health insurance scheme, because I think I get a choice, but I don't actually know?) Anyway, I was wondering if you, or your readers, could suggest the sensible questions to ask when trying to compare US job offers?
Congratulations on the new job offers. You must be pretty spectacular to have two offers from companies that are willing to move you half way around the world.

Coming from a different country things are going to be very different. But, the questions you should ask are those that everyone considering job offers should ask. For the purposes of this exercise, I'll assume the base salaries are similar enough that the decision won't be made on that basis. Here are 10 things to consider when comparing job offers.

  1. Paid Time Off. The US has a very different idea about vacation than many other countries. Two to three weeks are standard for a fairly high level job. Four weeks would be spectacular. Sick time and holidays (where the company is closed) vary as well. Some companies have separate sick and vacation time banks. Some have everything lumped together in one group called Paid Time Off (PTO). I am not a fan of PTO, personally, because it means if you get the flu and are out for a week, you might have to cancel your trip to Disney. Bah on that.
  2. Bonuses. Many companies will say "There's a 15% bonus!" Well, yippee. What does that mean. What has to happen for those bonuses to be received? What portion is the company meeting its goals and what portion is the employee meeting his goals? How often is the whole 15% awarded? What happens if you quit (or are fired) mid year? If the bonus is earned in the calendar year, but paid out in February, do you have to be employed in February to receive it?
  3. Overtime. I don't know how things work in Australia, but in America there are two categories of workers: Exempt and non-exempt. Exempt employees are paid to do the job, not by the hour. Therefore, your paycheck is the same every week regardless of whether you work 40 or 80 hours. There are certain qualifications you have to meet to be considered exempt, such as independent responsibilities, managing others or managing tasks. I can almost guarantee that you will not be eligible for overtime pay, people won't do an international relocation for a non-exempt employees. Non-exempt employees get paid time and half for working more than 40 hours in a calendar week.
  4. Expected work hours. Some companies, the parking lot is empty by 5:15. Others are still going strong at 7:00. When I worked in pharma, the parking lot next to the labs was completely full by 6:30 a.m. I guess those scientist types liked early mornings. Or their bosses did. My point is, at some companies (and in some departments) "normal" is 40 hours a week, while at others a "normal" work week is 60 hours. You want to know what "normal" is for your jobs.
  5. Cost of Living. San Francisco is expensive, expensive, expensive. I have no idea what the cost of living in Portland is. But, in the US things vary widely from state to state and city to city. Not only do you need to look at housing, commuting and general living costs, you need to look at taxes. Yes, Federal Taxes are the same wherever you go, but states, counties and cities all have separate taxes. Property tax, sales tax, income tax. Tax, tax, tax. Boy, do we love to tax. Look into it.
  6. Health Insurance. This is a big one, but you already knew that. Things you want to know: cost out of your paycheck, deductibles, co-pays, limits, are your choices of doctors/hospitals limited?, do you have to coordinate all your medical care through one primary care doctor (an HMO) or do you have to pick from a specific list of providers (PPO), is there an out of pocket maximum? what is it?, are their conditions that are not covered, what about dental and vision? It's complex! Ask to speak with the benefits coordinator at each company to go over the plans in detail. It's complicated enough for Americans who have grown up with the system, let alone for people coming from another country.
  7. General economic climate. If you have a trailing spouse who will need a job, what opportunities are there for your spouse? If she's in a specialized profession, one city will probably be substantially better than the other. Ask and look around.
  8. Public Schools. In the US, your children go to the public school based on where you live. There are some exceptions, such as magnet schools, but this is generally the case. Places with good schools are generally more expensive than those with bad schools. (Although, this is hardly universal.) Even teaching philosophies can differ widely between school systems. If the public schools are lousy and you'll have to pay out of pocket to put the little darlings into private school this can be a big deal.
  9. What does relocation cover? Relocation coverage can vary widely from company to company. For instance, will they pay to ship your cars, or will you have to sell and buy new ones? Do they cover closing costs or temporary housing? Because you're moving from another country, the immigration costs are extensive. Are they covering all of them? What about ensuring that your spouse is legal to work as well? When a problem comes up, who will take care of it?
  10. Other perks: Does the job involve travel? Who gets the frequent flier miles? Can you charge the plane tickets and hotels to your American Express and then keep all the points, or do they all get billed directly to the company? Will you have a private office, a shared office, a cube or simply a laptop that you plug in wherever you can find a seat?
Hopefully these things can help you make your decision. Congratulations on the job offers!
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