University Business - March 2011 - (Page 26)

HUMAN RESOURCES Optional benefits helping to compensate for rising employee contributions As Budgets Shrink, Voluntary Benefits Grow By Carol Patton W HEN LISTENING TO employees talk about their jobs, school officials may hear questions, concerns, and even fears about health care insurance. How much more will I have to contribute this year for premiums? Can I afford it? Will my coverage shrink? While the spotlight is on health care, not much is being said about trends regarding employee voluntary benefits, such as vision, supplemental life insurance, and long-term disability. With stretched budgets, many higher ed institutions are adding these benefits as an employee retention tool to help meet the diverse needs of their changing workforce and also to help cushion the blow for employees whose out-of-pocket contributions for core benefits and co-pays have soared. Shenandoah University (Va.) officials recently formed a cross-functional committee of 13 staff and faculty to explore what types of benefits employees prefer, shares Kelly Samson-Rickert, HR and benefits manager at the school, which supports about 865 employees and 3,600 students. “We had a very old-fashioned benefits plan, a one-size-fits-all, get it or not,” she says, adding that employees contribute an estimated 15 percent toward the cost of core benefits. “Now we have a different philosophy. We want to make Shenandoah University the place of choice [for staff ]. We asked our employees, ‘What is it going to take to get us there?’” HR learned the top voluntary benefits were vision, a flexible spending account, supplemental life insurance, and a pretaxed savings account, which she refers to as a Christmas savings account. Other suggestions were pie-in-the-sky, such as an onsite gym, a daycare center, and a private as a Roth IRA, in addition to a group rate for long-term care insurance. Employees are “hungry” for voluntary benefits and also want a say in what those benefits should be, she adds. CONFUSION AND EFFICIENCY Since higher ed institutions traditionally adopt a paternalistic approach toward employees, voluntary benefits are also being used to offer staff more financial stability. “Some things we’ve seen as being very prevalent are employers providing access to additional supplemental coverages, whether it be life or disability insurance, but also purely employee paid benefits, such as group legal or group auto and home,” says Glenn Petersen, vice president of voluntary benefits sales at MetLife in Bridgewater, N.J. e fastest growing MetLife voluntary benefit is critical illness. He explains that it complements coverage for major illnesses like cancer, heart attack, or stroke by paying expenses beyond traditional medical care like fees for parking or child care services when patients visit a doctor or the hospital for medical treatment. While it’s tempting for HR to pile on voluntary benefits during a down economy, Petersen believes too many could lead to mass confusion, making it difficult for employees to prioritize their needs, which can ultimately jeopardize the effectiveness of a voluntary program. Likewise, rising costs on both sides of the aisle—for employers and employees— is driving yet another change. “ e trend that we expect to continue over the Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues. Too many voluntary benefits could lead to mass confusion among employees. jet for conference travel (the school sits across the street from the city’s airport). While the university already offered a flexible spending account for health care, a change was made in 2010 that increased utilization of pre-taxed accounts: having a third-party administrator manage them. Samson-Rickert believes usage may have risen because another layer of employee privacy or confidentiality was added. e school also introduced vision and supplemental life insurance, invited a local bank to set up Christmas savings accounts, and expanded voluntary benefits to domestic partners. She says there was never any “pushback” from staff about paying the full cost of these benefits. Even more surprising: Despite the poor economy, employees are saving the maximum amount, or five percent of their salary, to receive the school’s matching eight percent contribution, another voluntary benefit. Looking ahead, Samson-Rickert says HR will probably add more after-tax vehicles for retirees and also employees, such 26 | March 2011

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of University Business - March 2011

University Business - March 2011
Editor’s Note
College Index
Company Index
Advisory Board
Behind the News
Sense of Place
Human Resources
Universities and Investment Fraud
Going the Distance
Meeting the Transparent Pricing Mandate
Community Colleges
What’s New
End Note

University Business - March 2011