Big or small, governments face the challenge of providing benefits that meet employee needs at a sustainable price. A number of state and local governments are instituting the help of employee benefit committees: voluntary groups of union and non-union employees that discover what benefits are most important to employees, align those with available funds and assist with benefit negotiations. Some of the committees have an additional responsibility of educating employees on any year-to-year changes, including cost. These committees don't replace unions or the human resources departments. Rather, the committees supplement them with their exclusive focus on employee benefits and attention to their colleagues' wants and needs.
To learn more about how these committees benefit employees, I spoke to three representatives: Jim Hanson, finance director in Montgomery, Ohio; Philip Bransford, communications officer for Washington County, Ore.; and Brenda Lakeman, director of Delaware's Statewide Benefits Office (which has two committees to evaluate benefits). Selected edited excerpts from my interviews appear below.
When and why was an employee benefit committee established?
Jim Hanson (JH): The Montgomery County Employee Benefit Committee has been in place for at least 12 years. I think the main reason why the program was developed is because the city got tired of being one-sided and wanted the employees to become more educated on the cost of health care and what impact it has on the budget. You have representatives from each major employee group participating in the selection of benefit plans, understanding what it costs per plan. They have ownership in it because, along with them making the selection, it'll also impact their pocketbook.
What are some of the typical committee tasks?
JH: We meet at least six times per year to review the benefits the city offers: dental, health and life insurance. We review them and we make a recommendation to our City Council as to what course we should take on these products.
Philip Bransford (PB): The work of the committee has focused on exploring options related to benefit plan design and health benefit cost containment, but topics such as federal health-care changes and employee wellness programs have also been discussed.
Brenda Lakeman (BL): The State Employee Benefits Committee (SEBC) provides oversight of all benefits for state employees and pensioners, with the exception of pensions and deferred compensation. Oversight includes awarding contracts, establishment of rules and policies, and fiscal management of the Group Health fund. The members of the State Employee Benefits Advisory Council (SEBAC) meet monthly to learn about upcoming SEBC agenda items for discussion [in order] to solicit the feedback of the constituents they represent. SEBAC will then provide the perspective of the council and their representative constituents for SEBC to consider before voting on a proposal.
How does the committee solicit employee feedback?
PB: In addition to publishing articles and postings in the employee newsletter and on the county's intranet page, the benefits committee conducted an organization-wide survey to gauge opinion about current benefits and preferences on potential benefit changes.
BL: State employees are free to contact the Statewide Benefits Office directly via phone or email, and there is an email box for SEBAC. Customer service surveys are done monthly.
How does the committee help educate employees on their benefits?
JH: Each year, the benefit committee does presentations to each one of the employee groups to explain any changes that might have occurred and the cost. Having representatives from each employee group helps with knowing that they do have representation and that we're all looking out for each other's interests. The representatives are also able to answer benefits questions at any time.
PB: Representatives from health insurance providers, county human resources staff and other experts have all helped educate the committee about the challenges and complexities facing the county with respect to employee benefits. Employees have been encouraged to communicate with their committee representatives throughout the process, in addition to learning of the committee's work through the outreach that human resources provides. We have found that this dual communication approach of employees communicating with employees, and human resources communicating with employees, to be of value. It has led to shared discussions of importance to employees.
What ongoing challenges do committees face?
PB: The benefits committee has explored the same difficult choices and cost-containment challenges faced by the county's managers. Although no organization is immune from the complexity and difficulty associated with these decisions, Washington County's Benefits Committee has demonstrated the value of involving employees at all levels of the organization in the building of solutions.
BL: The SEBC is continually challenged to provide a rich suite of benefits for state employees in an era of scarce state resources. The SEBC has worked to overcome these challenges in a number of ways. First, the committee has been very active in driving cost savings in benefits plans offered to state employees. This has been accomplished by marketing benefit programs through detailed RFPs to procure the most comprehensive services at the best price, and implementing management techniques in pharmacy costs. [In addition, the SEBC has developed] offerings that adjust to market conditions and employee needs, such as consumer-driven health plans that allow employees to more fully understand and control their own health-care costs.
What are the overall benefits of the committee?
JH: I think ownership is one of the big benefits. The employees see the process, how we come to a decision on what type of coverage we provide, at what cost ... there's more of an interest in the employee group, to know that employees are looking out for the best interest of the city and the employee group. Because we have the group involved, there's greater credibility from the standpoint of employees, rather than HR making a sole decision. It's greater confidence that things are being done for the benefit of all.
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