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Beneficial Benefits

Colleges and universities are expanding employee benefits to attract and retain talent.
University Business, Aug 2007

WITH EVERY DECADE THAT GOES BY, THERE seems to be a handful of employee benefits that either dominate the human resource scene or become the latest topics of debate.

In the 1970s, HMOs made their debut, along with individual retirement accounts. In the 1980s, employee assistance programs began helping people with personal issues that could affect their job performance. In the 1990s, health and wellness programs took off , featuring everything from weight control classes to walking programs featuring podcasts that identify native plants.

Higher ed institutions continue to add to their smorgasbord of employee benefits in an effort to compete for talent in a shrinking labor market. Here's a glimpse into the top five employee benefits that are expanding or creating new paths at colleges and universities nationwide.

Some schools are offering on-site clinicians or free health care services. Consider the University of Richmond (Va.), which employs approximately 1,500. Officials are exploring the feasibility of hiring an on-site nurse practitioner.

The idea is not only to keep employees healthy, happy, and productive, but also to lower the school's health care costs. Carl Sorensen, associate vice president of HR services at the school, says most employers find that between 5 and 8 percent of their employees incur roughly half of the health plan's claims costs due to chronic medical problems like high cholesterol or hypertension. "All of those are lifestyle-related and correctable with the proper coaching from a doctor or nurse practitioner," he says, explaining that this benefit was a huge success at his former employer, Davidson College (N.C.). "It can make a significant improvement to their health and lower claims associated with those illnesses when they get out of hand."

Another advantage is that employees would take much less time off from work because they could simply walk across campus instead of driving across town to a doctor's office. Probably one part time nurse practitioner will be hired at first to see if employees take advantage of the free service, Sorensen says, adding that the savings resulting from reduced claims may completely pay for the benefit or, at the very least, be a wash.

We're looking at [domestic partner benefits] from a competitive standpoint. It's also viewed as the cost of doing business.'
-Kyle Cavanaugh, University of Florida

Other higher ed institutions are embracing the same concept. The University of Arizona's 10,000 employees can have their diet analyzed for free by an on-site nutritionist. North Carolina State University offers free fl u vaccinations every fall for its 8,000 workers. Anyone else wanting the vaccine during the event pays a flat $20 fee, says Yvette Griffin, director of benefits at the school.

The University of Kentucky's 13,000 employees can participate in the Pharmacists CARE program, says Kimberly Wilson, associate vice president of HR at the school. The five-year-old program supports two part time pharmacists, who help about 200 employees per year manage diabetes, asthma, and other chronic illnesses. Other employees participate in the Pharmacy Copay Counseling program, which is also free and was introduced in 2002. Two on-site pharmacists handle approximately 40 phone calls per day from employees asking questions about medications, including drug interactions, and seeking tips on controlling drug costs.

Wilson says that since these programs were introduced, the school's overall health plan expenses have increased by 5.2 percent compared to the national average of 8.6 percent.

Domestic partner benefits are proving to be an employee magnet for some schools. According to a CUPA-HR 2006 Benefits Survey of 537 institutions of higher education, 25 percent of responding public schools offer same-sex domestic partner health care, while 24 percent offer it to opposite-sex domestic partners. But those numbers nearly double at private IHEs, where 66 percent offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners and 48 percent to opposite-sex domestic partners.

The University of Denver has been offering same-sex and opposite- sex domestic partner benefits for 10 years, reports Richard Gartrell, director of HR at the university, which supports approximately 2,350 employees.

In order to qualify, employees must sign an affidavit acknowledging their partnership. They must live with each other and have some common economic interest, such as a joint bank account, he says. Although the school hasn't measured the benefit's return-on investment, he says that "anecdotal input from deans, department chairs, and faculty [demonstrates] that partner benefits are essential to our recruitment efforts."

With the University of Denver's Workplace Option program, employees have backup child care in place for when the need arises.

Iowa State University began offering such benefits back in 2000 for similar reasons to its 6,050 employees, says Mike Otis, benefits manager. At ISU both partners must also sign a declaration attesting to their union, be over the age of 18, not be related in any way that would bar marriage, not be married to another person, and share significant financial resources.

"Overall, we're fairly content with the way things are," he says, adding that although the public institution is under the auspices of a state board of regents, it does have some flexibility related to voluntary benefits and is considering offering a vision services discount program.

The University of Florida is in its second year of offering domestic partner benefits. Although just 40 out of its 14,000 employees participate, that number is expected to grow over time, says Kyle Cavanaugh, senior VP for administration. The benefit is part of the school's standard operating package. It is introduced during new employee orientations and the annual enrollment process and is also addressed in publications and on the school's website.

"There was a lot of concern initially when these plans started to come out that you might see a disproportionate claims experience," Cavanaugh says. "From my conversations with others who've had these plans for years, there's been no differential experience in offering these benefits. We're looking at this from a competitive standpoint. It's also viewed as the cost of doing business."

Last year, The University of Arizona extended tuition assistance to domestic partners of employees. While employees pay $25 per course, spouses, dependents, and domestic partners pay 25 percent of their tuition costs.

"We wanted to be fair," says Allison Vaillancourt, associate VP of HR. "Our health insurance is provided by the state of Arizona, so we're barred from providing health insurance to domestic partners. But we have control over our tuition reduction program."

Up to now, only 10 people at UA have taken advantage of the program. It has been promoted through an e-mail letter from the university president to all employees and by the faculty, staff , and grad student group OUTreach, which communicates university information to its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members.

Since January, employees at Duke University and the Duke University Health System are being reimbursed for tuition costs at any accredited public or private college or university. They can enroll in up to two classes per semester, with an annual cap of $5,000.

"We looked at what our strategic workforce needs would be in the future and felt we needed to expand so that more employees could take advantage of the program," says Sylvester Hackney, associate director of benefits at Duke, which supports 25,000 employees. "Duke is pretty much a day campus. We wanted employees to also have the opportunity to take classes in the evening. We were ensuring the opportunity to get some of the skill sets that may not [already] be covered here at Duke."

Hackney adds that his department held workshops with managers, who approve all courses, to explain the benefit and how it must be incorporated into employee development plans.

Over the past decade, the institution has also paid 75 percent of tuition costs for children of its employees. The program is structured so that two children from each family can earn their undergraduate degree from any accredited school. Just last year, he says, Duke paid $16.5 million for this benefit.

Child care continues to be a significant challenge for many schools. Most IHEs that offer it have long waiting lists or resort to contracts with outside facilities.

For the past decade, the University of Florida has supported two child development centers on campus that cater to approximately 120 pre-kindergarten children, explains Cavanaugh. The first is called Baby Gator, and the second is provided through a contract with KinderCare.

Considering there is a waiting list of more than 400 employees, he says the university is in the planning stages of building a much larger on-site facility that will double its current capacity. The challenge isn't making employees aware of the service, but meeting their needs either on or off campus.

Referring to the difficulty employees have of finding day care for children who suddenly become ill, Cavanaugh notes, "A lot of folks have really struggled with this for a number of different reasons. It's a complicated service delivery model. And most people are more comfortable being at home with their sick child as opposed to leaving the sick child in the care of someone else when the child isn't doing well."

Being able to bring a sick child to campus can be easier on families. Iowa State University's Comfort Zone program for children with mild illnesses is one model that seems to work. The 15-yearold program serves up to eight children, from six months to 12 years of age, at once and employs an on-site nurse and child care professional, says Otis.

Arranging for backup child care can be just as stressful. Last month, the University of Denver launched a program called Workplace Options. Parents pay $2 per hour if they take their child to the day care facility and $4 an hour if someone comes to their home. The university pays the rest, says Gartrell, who predicts that the institution's portion will cost roughly $80,000 this year.

Other IHEs are experimenting with different approaches. Employees at North Carolina State University receive discounts from 100 different child care providers. Duke University provided a $200,000 grant to the Child Care Services Association so its employees could receive priority placement at 20 different child care centers. And when a child is sick or there's an emergency, a caregiver comes to the home of employees at The University of Arizona. Employees pay $2 an hour for the first child and $1 an hour for each additional child. The university pays the rest of the fee, which totals $18 an hour.

Meanwhile, the University of Richmond is exploring options for child care. The pressure is on from both faculty and staff , who have requested this benefit via employee surveys, says Sorensen.

"It's a huge morale issue for us," he says. "I'm sure people spend time during the workday wondering what they'll do if their child gets sick. They have to leave work, and their productivity is lower while they're trying to figure out how they're going to piece it together later in the day."

Some colleges and universities are extending their wellness programs to include financial health. Every spring during the last several years, for example, Mississippi State University has offered two half-day seminars that focus on retirement planning, says Ann Bell, director of HR management at the school, which supports 4,200 employees.

A panel of experts-including a representative from the local Social Security office and vendors who specialize in investment planning-are invited to address the topic. Bell explains that the free seminars are promoted both to MSU employees and retirees through traditional communication vehicles, such as employee newsletters and e- mails.

Last year, HR administrators also developed an online retirement site for employees, featuring information on different types of retirement plans offered by the school and on annuity plans, as well as links to Social Security and other personal finance calculators.

Duke is perhaps the only school that offers a whole week focusing on personal finance advice for employees. During Financial Fitness Week, the university provides free on-site financial seminars and a benefits fair that focuses on financial planning. It was introduced five years ago and is held the same week in mid-May that employees receive their annual statement summarizing their benefits and retirement savings, explains Hackney.

Likewise, for the past several years, The University of Arizona has been offering employees and their spouses free seminars each month on a variety of topics ranging from saving for a house or a child's college education to retirement planning.

Financial courses aren't a typical benefit offered by schools, so this was one way the university could distinguish itself when recruiting talent, says Vaillancourt. Since the school's investment and retirement vendors provide the speakers, the school's only responsibilities are promotion and setup. Approximately 25 people have attended each of the lunchtime workshops.

"We wanted to help [employees] be more financially secure," says Vaillancourt, adding that when people are stressed out over finances, their productivity decreases. "It's also a benefit that's not offered by many different employers, so we wanted to differentiate ourselves that way."

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer and the Human Resources columnist for University Business.

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