P&S Council's annual pay proposal turns focus to benefits

Acknowledging the university's budget challenges, the Professional and Scientific Council's compensation and benefits recommendation for fiscal year 2022 focuses on benefits and policies instead of salary increases. 

The council's annual recommendation typically suggests a specific percentage increase in pay for P&S staff meeting performance expectations, such as its call for FY21 raises to exceed inflation or for increases of 3-5% in FY20. Given the budget year beginning July 1 will mark the second consecutive year of an across-the-board 5% reduction, the council's compensation and benefits committee isn't proposing a specific performance-based salary increase.

"In a year consumed by a worldwide pandemic, a derecho that caused significant damage in Iowa, and (annual) budget cuts, we understand raises may not be possible," the compensation and benefits report states. "This is the attitude ISU staff has because we respect the mission of this university, and we want the organization to thrive."

The report and accompanying recommendation were presented for a first reading at the council's Feb. 4 meeting. Council members will consider final approval at their March 4 meeting.

Any small raise in FY22 would be appreciated, committee chair John Odenweller said. Premiums and copayments for health insurance went up Jan. 1, and faculty and P&S staff didn't receive a standard performance-based salary increase for the current year. But in an unprecedented time, the committee emphasized improvements it considers more likely than a boost in pay.

"The group tried to take a somewhat understanding and realistic outlook," Odenweller said.

Preserving existing employee contribution rates to benefits is one of the recommendations. Monthly health care premiums went up $20-25 in 2021, and most copayments for medical services and prescriptions increased by $5 or more. In announcing the changes in October, senior leaders said additional employee contributions are needed to cover rising health care expenses, and the 2021 increases -- the first premium hike in seven years -- likely will be followed in coming years by more incremental adjustments to close a deficit in the self-funded health plan.  

The compensation report notes the added health plans costs implemented this year could amount to nearly 1% of the salary of an employee who makes $48,000 per year and suggests that further benefits cuts could diminish employee morale, recruitment and retention.

"The one bright spot in our compensation has consistently been the employee benefits package," the report states.

The recommendation also calls for:

  • Creating a sustainable financial model that allows long-term commitments to staff
  • Encouraging consistent policies and training
  • Supporting mental health and well-being via flexible work arrangements and child care assistance

Winter success

In his regular update for the council, senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert said the first-ever winter session was a success by any measure, giving more than 2,100 students a chance to continue their academic progress during an unusually long winter break and generating an extra $3.6 million in revenue.  

University leaders are exploring offering a winter session again, but the key question is how to adjust the academic calendar.

"We have a planning committee developing multiple options for what that might look like," Wickert said.

'Normal' by fall

Planning underway for the fall assumes a return to widespread in-person instruction, thanks to the expected deployment of COVID-19 vaccines, Wickert said. But the new normal may be a bit different from the old normal.

With the extensive experience faculty and students have with online instruction, more courses will be offered in that format than before the pandemic, he said. For employees, remote work and flexible work will be more common than before, too. That has prompted an analysis of how space in campus buildings should be configured to accommodate post-pandemic workplaces.

"Just like any other business, we're looking at it," Wickert said. "There are no announcements right now. We're just starting that discussion."

Spread the good news

Dire predictions about the pandemic having a negative academic impact haven't seemed to hold at Iowa State, Wickert said. First-year retention was a record high this fall (88.5%), and average student grades and academic standing status this fall were similar to previous semesters. 

"Our campus is getting the job done, and I think that's an important message," he said.

Keeping students on track despite the challenging circumstances has relied on employee efforts that extend beyond the classroom, including academic advisors, tutors, instructional designers, counselors, the team that works on Canvas and many others, Wickert said.

"It's all the things working together as a system," he said. "I want to thank you for the role you played in that."

Behind the scenes

With the Iowa Legislature in session, bills that could impact Iowa State are often in the news. Wickert assured council members that the university is actively engaged with legislative issues, even when it's not publicly apparent.  

"It's like an iceberg. There's a lot going on below the surface. You might not personally see a lot of activity or a lot of initiative on our campus on some of these bills. But just because you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't happening," he said.