As a part-time teller at Bank of America's main San Francisco branch, Kyu Nam Kim isn't entitled to health or retirement benefits.
But a year ago, she was given an option to buy 100 shares of BankAmerica Corp.'s stock under a plan that covered the bank's 85,000 full- and part- time workers. Since then, she has received options on another 200 shares- and she has no plans to cash in.
"I know Bank of America will continue to go up, and I think I'm contributing to the stock's growth rather than just being a typical employee of the bank," she said.
Options holders like Ms. Kim are a growing breed. Once reserved for corporate America's elite, options grants are increasingly being ladled out to middle- and lower-level employees at a host of banking and financial services companies.
Most of these programs-adorned with catchy names like WealthBuilder, Value Shares, and Make it Your Business-give the holder the right to buy shares in the future at a pre-determined price. Part-time employees are usually eligible.
Many companies are making the grants an annual gift, so that holders who don't exercise their options can build up modest nest eggs, provided they stick around and the price of the stock increases.
"Companies want workers to have an identification with the company," said Rose Marie Orens, a pay consultant with KPMG Peat Marwick in New York.
The trend carries clear implications for employees of the companies as well as jobseekers. For people on the move, it may well make sense to size up option policies when deciding between competing offers.
"If people were choosing between two different evenly matched companies, but one of the companies offered options, this might tip it," said Anita Lands, a New York-based career consultant.
According to a number of career and outplacement consultants, options are already having an effect on how long an employee chooses to remain with a company. "They definitely factor into people's willingness to stay with a firm," said Rick Beal, a compensation specialist with Watson Wyatt Worldwide.
Stock optionshave an undeniable allure. Unlike more traditional stock plans such as employee stock-ownership plans (ESOPs) or 401(k)s, options can be converted into cash long before a person retires.
Benefiting from a 1995 accounting rule that affirms a company's right to grant options without having to take a charge against earnings, a slew of commercial banks, including BankAmerica Corp., NationsBank Corp., Norwest Corp., and Chase Manhattan Corp., have launched option programs in the past two years.
Wall Street has been slow to jump on the bandwagon, but that's largely because many of its cash-rich companies offer a generous mix of cash bonuses and stock to most of their employees anyway.
But the Travelers Group, the financial services behemoth that recently combined its Smith Barney and Salomon Brothers purchases, has one of the most ambitious broad-based option plans going.
"If the U.S. financial services industry is going to be a world leader 50 years from now, we have to broaden the base of people who have share ownership," said Sanford I. Weill, chairman of Travelers.
Of course, options aren't worth anything if the stock price doesn't move above the strike or exercise price. But with the bull market of the past few years, annual price gains of 30% or more have been taken almost as a given by both the companies and their employees.
A survey of the 54 largest financial services companies conducted by William M. Mercer Inc. found that 17% have instituted broad-based stock option programs, an almost fivefold jump from four years ago.
The biggest catch to holding options is the need to remain on the job for a while, either for a designated length of time or until the stock reaches a certain plateau.
Under Travelers' broad-based option plan, WealthBuilder, for example, an employee must remain with the company for five years to be fully vested. In June, employees were granted options on stock worth $4,000 or 10% of their salary, whichever is lower.
"This is designed to get them to think long-term," said Mr. Weill. "If they leave, they forfeit part of the benefit."
Mr. Weill said he launched WealthBuilder after learning that a quarter of his company's 60,000 employees held no stock in the company. At the time, middle- and upper-level employees benefited from options and restricted stock.
Ruth Lenrow, a vice president and assistant treasurer with Travelers' treasury group in Baltimore, is appreciative of her company's options culture. When she worked for Commercial Credit, the Control Data Corp. subsidiary that Travelers bought more than a decade ago, she wasn't given options in the company's stock.
Now, she holds options under various programs, and oversees five employees who get WealthBuilder.
"I feel like I'm running my own business," said Ms. Lenrow. "The options have allowed me to make philanthrophic commitments that I would not be able to make without them, as well as provide financial security for myself and my family."
But most financial services companies, including American Express Co., J.P. Morgan & Co., the Hartford Financial Services Group, and Bankers Trust New York Corp., don't issue stock options to their rank and file employees and have no immediate plans to do so.
Opponents of broad-based stock option plans talk about the potential dilution to existing shares when many employees can exercise options on stock set aside for them. They also wonder whether employees at the low end have enough direct influence on the company's fortunes.
"It makes more sense to give real stock to people in amounts that make a difference, as opposed to small stock options that may or may not have value," says Herbert Hefke, a managing director and head of global human resources at J.P. Morgan & Co.
"Plus, the dilution factor for sizable stock option awards is significant," Mr. Hefke says.
Added Randy Kiviat, an assistant vice president for human resources at The Hartford, "I get concerned when I hear that people are only getting 100 shares of stock, with all that effort on the company's part for a relatively small payout."
Peter Stingi, Merrill Lynch's first vice president for global compensation, points out that his firm, as well as others on Wall Street, provide a host of cash bonuses and other incentives throughout the institution, making across-the-board options unnecessary.
"The amount of stock we have available for employees is limited," he said. "We start working our way from the CEO on down. We want stock to represent 10% of someone's compensation. By the time we get through the senior people, we have used up all the stock that we think is reasonable to provide employees with an annual grant."
These executives also point out that unless management can effectively communicate the value of holding onto options instead of cashing in at the first available opportunity, what's the point of having them?
"If the managements aren't going to talk it up, there is a good chance they've wasted their money," Ms. Orens said.
Indeed, a Duke University study last year found that two-thirds of low- level employees tend to exercise options less than six months after they are vested. Senior executives tend to hold on for longer.
To get employees to think long-term, companies with broad-based programs work to educate their employees about the benefits of holding on. For example, Travelers Group provides employees with easy-to-understand graphics that address the question, "What makes an option so valuable?"
Paula Roe, a Norwest senior vice president in charge of compensation, said that about half of the bank's employees still hold on to options they could have exercised as early as July 1997, only 11 months after they were issued. "We have gone out of our way to tell people that just because it vests doesn't mean that people have to cash out," she said.
But employees like Stephanie Meyer, a 27-year-old small-business marketing manager with Norwest Card Services in Des Moines, cashed out and put her $1,600 after tax into a backyard deck. Still, she has received options on another 400 shares in a new round of grants and hopes to hang on this time.
"This is a pretty impressive little package of stock," she said.
But what if financial services stocks begin heading down as part of a sustained bear market? Such a scenario would clearly put a damper on the value of stock options.
"In a bear market, a benefit could become a disincentive," said Merrill Lynch's Mr. Stingi.
But proponents of these packages point out that employees have 10 years to wait for a stock turnaround before the options expire.
And Sandra Wilkins, a 51-year-old assistant treasurer at Chase Manhattan's corporate insurance services division, is bullish about the future value of her options on 650 Chase shares.
"Stock options are certainly attractive, especially if you can hold onto them," she said.