Beneficial Benefits: Colleges and Universities Are Expanding Employee Benefits to Attract and Retain Talent

Article excerpt

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.

1. Health Care Help: Open Up and Say "Ahhh"

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.

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 flu 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 PharmacistsCARE 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.

2. Partner Benefits: A Family Affair

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. …