Why we support equitable employee benefits at the University of NebraskaBy: James B. Milliken, president, University of Nebraska; Harvey Perlman, chancellor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; John Christensen, chancellor, University of Nebraska at Omaha; Doug Kristensen, chancellor, University of Nebraska at Kearney; and Harold Maurer, chancellor, University of Nebraska Medical Center
In recent years, employer-provided benefits to partners of unmarried employees have become a more widely available part of competitive benefits plans. A growing number of public and private sector employers – including in Nebraska – have expanded benefits programs to include employees’ partners and their dependent children as a way to recruit and retain talented people, address the changing needs of employees, and promote workplace equality. We believe it is time for the University of Nebraska to do the same.
This week, the NU administration briefed the Board of Regents on a proposal to expand eligibility for participation in the University’s benefits program to include employees’ partners and their dependent children. The logic behind the proposal is clear: Every other Big Ten university provides partner benefits, as do a majority of the peers of the NU campuses and a number of leading private companies in Nebraska and across the country. We believe the University should provide similar benefits, not only to maintain our competitiveness in a marketplace for talented faculty and staff, but also because treating our employees equitably is the right thing to do. At a time when Nebraska must do all it can to attract and nurture human capital to grow the innovation economy in our state, not providing equitable benefits harms our ability to compete for talent. Most important, we believe we have an obligation to treat people fairly in the workplace.
Providing partner benefits would bring the University of Nebraska in line with the prevailing practices of comparable universities. More than 300 higher education institutions across the country offer partner benefits, including public universities in at least 30 states and most of the highly ranked research institutions. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of Fortune 100 companies and nearly 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer health insurance benefits to employees’ partners. In Nebraska, a number of major companies offer partner benefits, including ConAgra, Union Pacific, Mutual of Omaha, Ameritas, HDR and Baker’s Supermarkets.
The proposal is consistent with the University’s existing goals. The University’s Strategic Framework includes several objectives related to ensuring competitive employment practices – including fringe benefits – to recruit and retain faculty and staff. The Board’s philosophy has been to strive for compensation that is at least at the midpoint of peer institutions. Since benefits can account for up to a quarter of an employee’s compensation, providing equitable benefits is, we believe, a key component to achieving the Board’s goal for competitive compensation. Further, in 2005, the Board of Regents adopted a nondiscrimination clause that includes sexual orientation and marital status.
We fully recognize that this change will not be supported by all Nebraskans. Nothing in the proposal would recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships in violation of the state’s constitution, and public universities in other states with “Defense of Marriage” amendments have adopted benefits plans such as the one that was proposed to the Board of Regents. Equitable benefits are a matter of fairness and competitiveness for the University – and, because the success of the state is so closely tied to the success of its only public university, this is a matter of economic competitiveness for Nebraska as well.
The faculty senates on all four campuses have formally asked that the university provide expanded benefits coverage, as have student governments in Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney. Our university-wide benefits committee also supports the proposal. It is our hope that the Board of Regents will adopt an equitable benefits program so that we can compete effectively for talent and do the right thing for our employees as we continue to fulfill our goal to serve Nebraska.
This editorial originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011.