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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Equality in the Mountain State - Economics and Fairness Drive Social Justice Reforms at Research Universities

In a recent meeting with senior level Human Resources representatives at West Virginia University, a revealing truth emerged that economic factors are largely driving the social justice reforms agenda at major research universities in the U.S., including at WVU. Recruiting and retention of top quality faculty, staff and students is negatively impacted when benefits packages offered to employees are not inclusive to accommodate flexible family situations for all employees. WVU administration is in support of the analysis, review, recommendation and implementation of policy reform to be more inclusive, thus more competitive.

Primarily for the sake of competition but also as an issue of basic fairness, most of WVU’s peer institutions have implemented or are in the process of implementing some form of benefits for other qualified sponsored adults, including chiefly among others, the provision of health care insurance for partners and family of all employees. The very heart of WVU’s research mission is at stake when discriminatory policies prohibit the extension of benefits to all employees and their families, regardless of marital or family status. Indeed, major multinational corporations with facilities located in West Virginia, for example, Toyota, already offer benefits for other qualified sponsored adults, even though neither state nor federal law requires it. It just makes good business sense to provide inclusive policies for employees.

People who are discriminated against include gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered couples and their children; unmarried heterosexual couples and their children as well as blood relatives (i.e. aging parent/child, siblings) or un-related friends living in domestic partnership situations. WVU cannot effectively recruit and retain quality faculty, staff or students when entire classes of people are effectively ruled out from inclusion of the full array of benefits programs offered to all other full-time employees.

Innumerable students, faculty and staff have turned down offers to go to school or to work at WVU simply because of these backward and discriminatory policies. Countless numbers of students, faculty and staff have given up hope and have left WVU for other institutions which provide more flexible benefits to all employees, regardless of their background.

WVU needs as much competitive advantage as possible, especially with the considerable number of employees expected to retire in the next five years. By 2012, 40% of WVU faculty will be eligible to retire. By 2014, 36% of the entire WVU campus will be eligible to retire. This presents a tremendous challenge of crisis proportion to replace outgoing faculty and staff with top quality talent, particularly when benefits are not equal among all players.

Without a level playing field to offer all employees in a benefits package, WVU loses out on recruiting many of the most talented faculty and staff. The current discriminatory policy is demoralizing, arcane and unethical. The situation is perceived by many people outside the state as backwards and bigoted. It is an irrational policy which is not in keeping with current accepted practices in academia. Moreover, most Fortune 500 companies offer the industry standard of equal family benefits for all employees, regardless of marital or family status. Total costs to the employer are negligible, typically less than 1% of the entire health care budget for the institution. WVU needs to conform to current employment standards, policies and practices or it will fall further behind in prominence as a major research institution.

The situation in West Virginia is complicated due to state law, a monopolistic health care environment, and lack of political will by government and industry officials to pursue reforms. PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency), the sole state-run health insurance provider says it cannot provide benefits outside of current state law. State law requires provision of health care by government agencies, prohibits the extension of benefits to unmarried partners and defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Those of us and our families who do not fit into this exclusive box are caught in a veritable catch-22 loop with these kinds of restrictive policies.

However, other options may exist for institutions like WVU to seek competitive bids from health insurance providers other than PEIA. In a growing trend, other county governments, most recently,
Upshur County, have elected to go with a private health care insurance provider, due to frustrations over cost, lack of accountability and lack of options offered by PEIA coverage. The county will save over $500,000 annually.

It is estimated that annually PEIA takes in $20 million in excess revenues from WVU contributions, the value of which current WVU employees do not receive back in actual health care benefits. Further, the current policy for salary-based incremental health care cost determination method is uncommon, regressive and unfair to all employees, especially those at either end of the spectrum. WVU’s share in contributions actually subsidizes the health insurance costs for many of the smaller state-wide government agency’s participants as well as funding the growing retiree health insurance benefits pool, at a tremendous cost in lost benefits and lower costs owed to WVU employees.

If PEIA is serious about retaining WVU as its largest customer, they will either wake up and smell the coffee and walk the path of reform or be left on their own. They are welcome to provide inadequate, overpriced health insurance for the rest of the state agencies minus WVU’s contribution, but the WVU community is fed up with being treated with such blatant disregard.

Already the WVU administration is preparing to roll out so called “soft benefits” for partners and families of employees, including library privileges and recreation center family discounts. In addition, the recent implementation of the “dual careers” program which provides support for employment for employee’s spouses and partners is also a step forward. However, without inclusion of equal “hard benefits” such as flexible health insurance coverage, it is simply not enough.

In other related developments, the WVU Faculty Senate is presently hammering out final touches to a forthcoming resolution to include benefits for other qualified sponsored adults. The WVU Staff Council has also placed benefits for other sponsored adults as a top item on their legislative agenda.
WVU Common Ground, an LGBTQ and allies faculty and staff networking group is gaining momentum, providing support and engaging discussion among all WVU employees.

At the federal level, ENDA legislation may be forthcoming this year. The national non-profit advocacy group, the
Human Rights Campaign is involved in promoting these and other federal reforms. At the state level, Fairness WV, the LGBT non-profit advocacy group is pushing for similar legislative reform to end discrimination against LGBT people in employment as well as housing. This legislation further embraces the idea of equal rights and benefits for all employees and their families.

Also on the national scene over the past year have been the contentious debates and ultimate legislation on health care reform in this country. As we have seen, this is not an issue unique to West Virginia or WVU. Monopolistic conditions and policies unfair to policy holders have created this inequality. As Americans and West Virginians, we all deserve and we should demand the best health care possible at the most affordable price and demand the same benefits are offered to all employees and their families.

Coordination in this effort will be key to the movement’s success - it appears that the stars are aligning in all the right places. That is not to say it will be an easy fight, but then the struggle for equality has always been a difficult yet worthy task. Fifteen years ago WVU almost achieved this gain, but the movement was well ahead of it’s time. We live in different times today, yet still outside of Morgantown, particularly in Charleston, there is much resistance to change. We must keep in mind the larger perspective and keep our eye on the prize throughout the process.

Thus, with economic and ethical considerations steering the path, wrapped up in this package for reform at WVU will be the provision of equal and flexible benefits for all employees, regardless of family situation. Indeed, in the larger business world, the very definition of “family” has evolved and policies have been adapted for nearly a decade now. If WVU can achieve some level of autonomy to do what makes best business sense for the institution, this may serve as a model for other state institutions and ultimately as an agent for change leading to legislative reform to make the state of West Virginia more competitive by following accepted industry HR norms and standards.

In the name of sound business practice and fairness, change is forthcoming. As I had predicted many years ago, the social justice agenda would not be reformed until it could be defined in terms of economic benefit and cost. Economics has now become the impetus to create the critical mass of a new common understanding for social reform. The issue of fairness also plays a role as widespread business ethics practices have increasingly made accommodations by offering a more flexible set of benefits to all employees because it is the right thing to do.

Reform will happen. It is no longer a matter of “if”, but “when”. At this critical juncture, it is imperative that we all contribute our personal stories and collective voices to this movement towards change. I implore you, dear reader, to engage yourself, to get involved, get your friends involved, and to be part of the making of history. We can no longer remain silent or complacent. This is one major step towards true equality for all. Won’t you
join us now?

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