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Q&A: Aligning Benefits with Employee Needs

Clipboard with document labeled "Benefits", glasses, notebook and calculator on a desk

The benefits programs employers offer can be an important part of attracting and keeping talented employees. We regularly review our benefits programs, and when we want to change or add new benefits, we can be challenged by complexities that for-profit organizations don’t typically face.

Cardinal at Work Insider sat down with Les Schlaegel, Associate Vice President for Benefits in University Human Resources, to learn more about how our benefits are reviewed to align with needs of employees, the process by which they are changed, a big improvement to one of our benefits that is on the horizon, and the benefits trends he’s seeing now.

Photo of  AVP for Benefits Les Schlaegel

Q: If you want to change an existing benefit, or have a new benefit to propose, what happens to move that forward?

A: It’s a bit of a lengthy response, but here goes: At any given time, there are a number of new benefits being recommended, or changes put forward to current benefit programs by a variety of groups, including employees, retirees, or senior managers, as well as our Benefits team. We continuously monitor the benefits world around us through various publications, conferences and interactions with numerous external benefits consulting firms.

So let’s say a change is suggested. We add that recommendation to a list of previous changes identified. A team made up of senior staff within the financial and human resources areas reviews the list and identifies which recommendations advance for further analysis. It’s a similar approach as the long-range planning ideas submitted; we look at the ideas based on many factors, including feedback that has surfaced and what factors are vital for attraction and retention.

For the recommendations moving forward, we conduct thorough analysis to assess:

  • the financial impact
  • the potential number of employees that would make use of the new or changed benefit
  • any possible negative impact, such as if the new or changed benefit included eliminating or changing an existing benefit
  • how the new or changed benefit will be administered if approved

We also benchmark with other higher education institutions, and look at similar benefits among our Silicon Valley competitors, to identify if this new or changed benefit is implemented elsewhere and if so, how it is being managed, and how the benefit has improved recruitment and/or retention. We then compile the analysis into a formal proposal to take forward.

The proposal is then reviewed by several internal oversight groups, including the Committee for Faculty and Staff Human Resources (CFSHR) and/or the Retirement Program Investment Committee (RPIC), the university’s Budget Group that reports to the Provost, and the Cost Management Analysis (CMA) group in Business Affairs, as well as consulting with several leadership groups to gain input. What may not be widely known is that the CMA must work with the federal government on any benefits changes, additions or deletions that we put forward to assess any potential impact to research funded by government grants.

An example of an improved benefit: we are updating our existing vacation leave accrual rates for staff to eliminate the vacation accrual rate difference between staff who hold Exempt positions and those who hold Non-Exempt positions. This change will be a great improvement to our vacation benefit, and result in over 2,000 Non-Exempt staff accruing higher levels of paid vacation time off. To get to the approval point, there were many months of effort to complete a financial analysis, review by leaders, a proposal to the federal agencies that oversee benefit rates, analysis of the financial impact for staff whose jobs are funded by federal research grants, and negotiations for a new vacation accrual rate. We are now able to move forward as our leaders have made decisions about the funding of the additional costs. This improved benefit will be a simpler approach to vacation accrual, a more efficient vacation benefit administration, and I'm confident it will be well received, even though it took us a long time to make this happen. We'll share more information in the coming weeks about this new vacation leave benefit.

This is a glimpse into our process, which can be complex and mean that it can take some time to review benefits changes or additions.

Q: What are the current trends in benefits programs in higher education?

A: Trends in higher education differ from trends among for-profit corporations, as you might expect, due to the unique needs of our employees (or prospective employees). For example, enhanced fertility treatments such as egg freezing are important for employees who hold or are seeking academic and research positions, due in part to the length of time it takes to complete a Ph.D., M.D., or other advanced degree.

Some trends we’re seeing now revolve around medical and retirement savings, since workers around the world and across age groups say those are critically important benefits. We are one of the few employers in Silicon Valley that still offers a free individual medical plan, and our retirement savings plan includes a match after just one year of service. Those benefits are viewed quite positively, so there are no changes foreseen on the horizon.

In addition, our Tuition Grant Program (TGP) for employees with dependents obtaining an undergraduate degree is a benefit that very few other employers offer, not just in Silicon Valley, but around the nation, so there are no changes planned for that benefit, either.

Other benefits trends we’re seeing include:

  • student loan repayment assistance, which can be important for younger employees
  • extending paid leave programs for employees becoming parents
  • paid time off for community service/volunteerism

Q: Will the long-range planning initiative affect our benefits?

A: It’s possible. We submitted a proposal to undertake a comprehensive review of our entire benefits “lineup” in order to determine any future changes, and with an eye to developing a suite of benefits offerings that includes some new options.

Like others who submitted ideas for the long-range planning initiative, we’ll learn what moves forward when announcements are made by the President's Office after the thorough process by which the Area Steering Groups are reviewing ideas to move forward.

Meanwhile, we work on a continuing basis with third party analysis firms so we understand how our benefits are utilized, which helps us be prepared if new or changed benefits are considered.