The University Record, March 7, 1994


Women’s group urges delay on flex benefits proposal

Editor’s Note: The following letter was sent to the Flexible Benefits Adv-isory Committee by the President’s
Advisory Commission on Women’s Issues in February.

While we applaud efforts to improve University benefit options and to control rising costs in this area, we are disappointed with the current plan as it is proposed in the Jan. 17 University Record. Because most of the proposed changes could be accomplished without the adoption of flexible benefits and because the current proposal fails to promote substantive change, increases the benefit burden carried by unmarried employees, and has a negative impact on those employees with dependent care responsibilities, we urge that the current plan be set aside while a more substantive and more equitable plan is developed.

Most, if not all, of the changes proposed could be adopted without a flexible benefits plan. Several of the proposed changes are beneficial—group purchasing options, the provision of short-term disability coverage for newer employees, and the extension of health insurance for dependents up to age 25, for example. But these options (and many others) could be provided within the framework of our current benefit program.

The current plan fails to adequately promote significant substantive change. The discussions that accompanied the development of the current proposal spoke of flexibility in selecting benefits (including the option of extending benefits to domestic partners) and a range of benefits options commensurate with the range of changing needs throughout employees’ lifetimes. But the proposed plan offers no real flexibility for those who are the only benefit providers in their households; only married couples with two sources of benefits have any real flexibility.

The concept of flexible benefits holds the promise of tremendous advantage for U-M employees. But the options available must be important and necessary. We are disappointed in choices such as the opportunity to pay the University $120 per year so that the University can in turn pay for a pair of glasses, when what is needed are substantive alternatives like benefits for domestic partners and options for financing dependent care or dependents’ tuition. For example, we can envision no-cost options such as the ability to use a portion of the University’s contributions to retirement to pay for dependent care or dependents’ tuition during limited periods of time.

The proposed plan increases the benefit burden carried by unmarried employees. It has been pointed out that unmarried individuals historically have subsidized benefits for their colleagues’ families. This is unavoidable with any sort of responsible social policy and we are not opposed to it. But the current plan appears to shift the burden further onto unmarried people. An informal survey of the unmarried members of our group found that under the proposed plan it will cost each of them several hundred dollars annually simply to maintain their current level of coverage. Lower paid, unmarried employees (most of whom are women and many of whom are responsible for the care of children or aging parents) will suffer the greatest impact of this proposed cost shift.

The proposed plan will have a negative impact on those University employees who have dependent care responsibilities. It is proposed that the sick time for staff be reduced from 15 to 12 days per year. This reduction will be felt most painfully by those staff with young children or other dependents. Currently, three of the allotted 15 sick days may be used for dependent care. Under the proposed plan, if an employee uses 12 days per year for his or her own health (doctor and dental appointments or illness) and then needs to care for a sick child or ailing parent, he or she will be forced to use vacation time rather than the three remaining sick days that are currently available. Again, this shift will be felt most severely by lower-paid staff women who cannot afford to pay others to provide dependent care. We wonder why there is any restriction on the number of sick days that can be used for dependent care; lifting this restriction would be a no-cost way of encouraging employees to honestly report the use of their sick and vacation time.

Under the proposed plan, staff members who use very little sick time will be rewarded—a concept we support in principle. Faculty, who are not required to account for their sick time use, will automatically be awarded 125 flex dollars annually, regardless of the number of days per year that they are ill, have doctor or dental appointments, or provide dependent care. Unless a new system of time monitoring for faculty is put into effect, this attendance incentive cannot be administered fairly.

We urge that efforts to develop a flexible benefits program be continued, but that the current proposal be set aside in favor of one that offers real flexibility and distributes more evenly the sacrifices of increased costs.

Members of the President’s Advisory Commission on Women’s Issues: Ruth Addis; Elizabeth Anderson; Patricia Coleman-Burns; Jacquelynne Eccles; Nora Faires; Lydia Fossa; Susan Gelman; Judith Heady; Carol Hollenshead, chair; Margaret Holmes; Carol Karlsen; Kim Kearfott; Nicole Laughlin; Jill Mateo; Sarah Winans Newman; Doneka R. Scott; Jayne Thorson; Lisa B. Baker and E. Kay Dawson, ex officio; Susan Kaufmann, staff.