MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ When Kenneth Kraut's auto insurance comes due four times a year, he writes a check and mails it.

He may soon be free of the bother, thanks to his employer.

Kraut, a flavor chemist in Somerset, N.J., now can have the insurance payments deducted a bit at a time from his biweekly paychecks. In addition to removing a worry, he saves 5 percent off the top of his premium.

``It's a great convenience. It's kind of like a forced savings,'' Kraut said. ``It's small amounts per paycheck. This way you're not hit all at once with a big bill.''

Kraut's company, Flavor Dynamics Inc., is among a growing number of small businesses around the country now able to offer discounts on optional employee benefits through automatic payroll deductions. The offerings aren't new, but in the past they've generally been available only to large companies able to negotiate volume discounts.

The program was introduced in January by Ceridian Corp., a Minnesota-based payroll services company that joined with RewardsPlus of America Corp. in Baltimore to develop the plan for small business clients.

Flavor Dynamics, a family-owned business with 20 employees that makes flavorings for the food industry, jumped at the chance to sign up, said Marilyn De Rovira, a company vice president.

The program gives employees convenience and price breaks on services they might be buying elsewhere, De Rovira said. Companies like Flavor Dynamics are able to offer benefits that attract employees, she said.

The program from Ceridian's Small Business Solutions unit includes auto, homeowners, pet, life and long-term care insurance, home security, mortgages and home equity loans at prices 5 percent to 15 percent below what individuals would pay on their own. There are no startup fees or administrative expenses.

RewardsPlus had no economical way of offering discounted benefits to small companies until it worked out the program with Ceridian. The program lumps together the buying power of thousands of employees from different businesses.

Under the alliance with Ceridian, RewardsPlus was able to build a single interface to offer the benefits to Ceridian clients, said Ken Barksdale, president of RewardsPlus.

``What makes it possible is the electronic linkage behind the scenes. If we didn't have that, we couldn't run the system,'' explained Brian Regan, vice president of Ceridian Small Business Solutions.

An employee signs up for the program by calling RewardsPlus, which is linked electronically with Ceridian's computer system.

``When that employee makes their choices, that deduction amount pops up on our screen just hours later. It's all done electronically,'' Regan said.

``The program enables us to assist small business owners in retaining their most valuable asset _ their employees _ by providing them with optional benefits at a low cost,'' said Robert Digby, senior vice president of marketing for Bloomington, Minn.-based Ceridian.

``The small employers have been begging for some type of economic way to compete with the large employers in the benefits industry to attract and retain employees,'' Barksdale said. ``We've finally found the formula to be able to do that.''

By late February, about 100 companies had signed up for the program, Regan said. Employee enrollments were just beginning to come in.

There is no charge to the employer. Barksdale says RewardsPlus charges benefit providers less than they would pay a regular sales agent and makes its money through volume sales of multiple products.

RewardsPlus tests all of its benefit offerings to make sure they are acceptable before putting them into a package, Barksdale added.

For Flavor Dynamics, the program helps De Rovira and her husband, Dolf, who own the business, compete for employees.

``There's such stiff competition with employees and trying to make them happy,'' Mrs. De Rovira said. ``I thought this would be something that would be very interesting for them.''

Kraut, 36, has worked at Flavor Dynamics for 10 years. While the program alone wouldn't keep him working for the small-town company, he said, it makes him feel appreciated as he is approached by headhunters trying to lure him to bigger companies.

``Overall, the company is trying to make things easier for us. It shows that the company really cares,'' he said. ``They don't benefit from it. We do.''