Benefits Task Force discusses how best to serve staff

By Ellen Finn

Over the past two weeks, the University of Puget Sound Benefits Task Force (BeneTF) has held three forums for staff and faculty to learn and ask questions about benefits planning. The meetings were held on campus on March 19, 21 and 28.

Every seven years the BeneTF convenes and looks at the changes in the benefits that are most important to staff and faculty. They also account for changes in prices within the healthcare industry and changes in Washington state laws regarding benefits.

The first meeting had 10 people in attendance, and the second had around 25. Cindy Matern is the associate vice president for human resources and is co-chair of the BeneTF. “While it’s not a lot of people who have attended the meetings so far, I figure if you come to the meeting you care and probably have an opinion about something, which we want to hear,” Matern said.

According to the staff and faculty benefits page on the University of Puget Sound website, the main goal of the BeneTF is to holistically look at current benefits to make recommendations. Benefits are the additional assets offered along with a salary that often include health insurance, a retirement plan, and child and elderly care benefits.

The task force gets community input through staff and faculty forums and through a survey put out in April. Additionally, they benchmark against regional companies and against other colleges in order to attract and retain top faculty and staff. They work together to make recommendations and make a final report to cabinet in December 2018. The entire process takes about 18 months in total.

The task force is made up of three faculty members, three staff, and is co-chaired by Matern and Katie Holmes, director of compensation and benefits.

At the meetings, the members of the BeneTF made it clear that they are not charged with making financial cuts to any benefits. They have a $21 million budget and allocate that money to each aspect of benefits as they see fit. The benefits budget is “budget neutral,” which means that no matter the University’s budget, the BeneTF will always have the same budget. “It is important to keep in mind that if the task force wanted to improve one aspect of benefits, they would have to take away funding from another aspect of benefits,” Matern said. “This is why we make sure to get staff and faculty’s opinions in the forum and survey we put out.”

The staff and faculty’s medical plans, retirement plans, and education benefits take up about 70 percent of the benefits budget. Other smaller parts of the budget include life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment, Medicare and Social Security.

The BeneTF wants feedback from a wide age range of staff and faculty. They also look for a variety of single people and coupled people, as well as people who have children.

Matern notes that it is important to hear from staff and faculty in order to obtain updated information.

“It’s interesting because we are getting different responses this time. Peoples’ opinions have changed. So it’s really good to go out every several years and take the pulse of your campus and find out what people do care about. We can’t assume it’s the same things from 10 years ago,” Matern said.

Holmes and Matern noticed a specific interest in staff and faculty retirement plans at the informational meetings. Multiple staff and faculty members said at the meetings that they do not want their retirement plan to shift or change.

The BeneTF presented staff and faculty with examples of how they had the potential to change medical premiums for spouses and family members. This would be done by putting money from retirement plans towards family healthcare. However, Matern said that it seems that this likely won’t happen because of the strong feedback based on retirement plans.

“They don’t want us touching their retirement plan. I will say our retirement plan is more generous than any place we saw when we benchmarked, so that’s likely why. People like that; they’re excited about that,” Matern said.

Another major aspect of the presentations included explanation of the medical trend rate, which refers to the change in cost of hospital visits per year. According to the BeneTF presentation, medical trend averages about 12 percent a year, which is significantly more than inflation, which is only about 2 percent per year. The task force explained to the attending faculty and staff that for example, in 2004, medical costs comprised 20 percent of the total budget, and now they make up 32 percent. This is a trend all over the United States, not just at Puget Sound.

“These meetings are meant to give our community a voice in how we’re spending a lot of money. But it also takes some education that ‘budget neutral’ has pain points. That means you have to give something up,” Holmes said. “That’s the hardest part for people to understand. We can enhance a particular benefit, but at what cost to other benefits?”

Staff and faculty can expect to receive an email survey about benefits in mid-April. The final benefits decisions will be made in December.

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