Washington — It's spring and once again employers' thoughts are turning to transfers. Corporate moves often are scheduled to coincide with the end of the school year. So about this time of the year, transfer plans move into high gear. And with the economy continuing to improve, the pace of relocation activity is expected to outpace 1983.
''Since the turnaround in the economy, companies are more able to incur the cost of transferring people,'' says Pat Hildebrandt, market research project manager for Homequity Inc., a relocation assistance company.
In fact, the number of moves this year should be up 10 to 15 percent over 1983, says Chris Collie, executive vice-president of the Employee Relocation Council, a nonprofit group that represents companies involved in corporate transfers.
The changes in corporate relocation policies in the past year have been evolutionary in nature. ''In the past 12 months there have not been major changes in relocation policy,'' says Patricia Matteson, director of marketing at Merrill Lynch Relocation Management Inc., another transfer assistance firm.
''Most of the major changes were in 1980, 1981, and 1982 as a result of the enormous changes in the real estate market'' and interest rates during that time , she says. It was during this period that a growing number of companies began offering transferred employees assistance with high mortgage costs.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting changes in corporate relocation benefits, especially in the kind of mortgage aid being offered, the type of assistance being granted to spouses of transferred employees, and the level of reimbursement for the income tax consequences of the move.
In addition to specific policy changes, companies appear to be more aware of the personal impact a move can have.
''There is greater sensitivity on the part of corporations to the individual and the effect the move is having on that person's life style,'' says Peter DiDomenico, a staff vice-president at the Employee Relocation Council.
Changing corporate attitudes, an improved economy, and slightly better relocation benefits have all combined to make workers more willing to move. ''Employees are a little less reluctant now'' to accept a transfer than when the economy was in the doldrums, says Ms. Hildebrandt at Homequity.
Move-related benefits do not appear to be the determining factor in whether workers decide to go ahead with a potential move, nor should they be, experts say. ''I find that relocation benefits are not the No. 1 criterion,'' says Merrill Lynch executive Matteson. ''The job and the opportunity and the whole picture are most important.''
''You have to consider the career move involved and how important it is for you. You also should consider what benefits the company offers to offset the costs'' involved in a move, says Ms. Hildebrandt.
When an employee is assessing relocation benefits, he should remember that ''three-fourths of the costs are in three items,'' says Ms. Matteson. These are the disposal of the employee's current home, the cost of a mortgage subsidy on the new home, and the cost of shipping household goods.
Lately employers have been able to hold down shipment costs by shopping for volume discounts, something the deregulation of the moving industry has encouraged, Mr. Collie notes.
A transfer is still very expensive for the employer. In 1983 the average cost of moving an employee who owns his own house was between $35,000 and $37,000, the Relocation Council says. That is up from an average $31,000 bill in 1982. Moving a worker who rents his home costs between $9,000 and $10,000.
In addition to move-related costs, a worker who is transferred and promoted at the same time typically receives a 15 percent raise, Mr. DiDomenico says. Any salary increase should be viewed in light of the related career step and what living costs will be at the new location.
An individual's ability to negotiate different or better relocation benefits ''depends on the company and on the employee's level'' within the company, says Ms. Matteson.
''If you are a senior-level executive, almost everything is negotiable. If you are a middle manager and the company has pretty standard policies,'' alterations come harder, she says. In general, the greatest amount of flexibility comes if the worker is at a high level or if the company is small.
Employers are taking the initiative on some relocation policy changes. For instance, a number of companies, including American Telephone & Telegraph, are now offering employees subsidized mortgages rather than paying a mortgage interest differential.
A mortgage differential plan typically gives the employee cash to offset, for a period of two to five years, the higher mortgage interest costs he may face.
Under the new subsidized mortgage plans, the employer pays a financial institution to offer the employee a mortgage at an interest rate below market. The advantage to the employee is that he does not have to worry about how to cover higher mortgage payments when a mortgage differential plan expires. And tax experts contend that the subsidized mortgage is not taxable income to the employee, whereas mortgage differential payments are taxable.
Subsidized mortgages can also benefit the employer. ''A 30-year subsidized mortgage can be arranged for equal to or less than what it costs to provide a five-year'' cash differential, says Miss Matteson.
Another relocation issue now getting increased employer attention is helping the spouse of a transferred employee find a job in the new location. The issue of spouse aid got put on the back burner when mortgage interest rates took off in 1979, Mr. DiDomenico says. ''I suspect there will be renewed attention'' to this issue now, he says.
The problem will grow in importance, experts say, as more and more families contain two individuals who are committed to their carreers. At the moment, few employers have formal spouse aid programs.
Homequity, however, recently started offering a program called CareerMoves, which provides the spouse with printed instructional material and seminars to speed the job hunting process in the new city.
Finally, some companies are improving the way they compensate workers for the tax consequences of a move. A substantial portion of the relocation assistance companies provide is taxable as income to the employee.
''Definitely more companies than before'' are offering ''tax adders,'' says Ms. Hildebrandt. When a company uses a tax adder, it tacks on a percentage figure, for example 25 percent, to any move-related reimbursement to offset the tax the employee will have to pay on the sum. And ''more and more firms are writing it in to their policy to cover state tax'' consequences as well, she says.