Did you know that it's OK to hold study sessions for your students? Or an in-house retirement reception for your colleague? Or lunch with your research team? These types of gatherings have fallen out of practice during the pandemic, and the university response team (URT) posted guidelines last week, Gathering in person on the ISU campus, intended to help revive them when appropriate.
"This has been a strange document to write -- that it's OK for people to get together, that it's OK to have a study session," said Frank Peters, C. G. "Turk" and Joyce A. Therkildsen Professor in the industrial and manufacturing systems engineering department, Study Abroad Center director and URT chair. "The initial response in March was to move essentially all gatherings to virtual formats and it became the perception that these things couldn't happen in person.
"It is OK to have interactions in person, and this guidance clears up that they're acceptable -- if you follow the precautions," he said. That includes face coverings, physical distancing, 50% capacity limits and, if food is involved, individual prepackaged items or a pack-your-own rule.
It's not new
The guidance doesn't replace or conflict with any university COVID-19 policies or guidelines, Peters said. It simply clarifies and highlights the fact that informal interactions are possible. It also includes links to all relevant documents as a reference.
Many informal gatherings don't rise to the level of an event -- for example, those that are open to the public or involve services from multiple university departments -- and don't need authorization.
Peters noted three caveats to the informal gathering guidelines:
- When it's practical, a hybrid option to your in-person gathering is strongly encouraged. Restoring antique tractors or playing pickleball probably aren't candidates, but a business meeting of the antique tractor club is.
- Respect that some aren't comfortable attending or can't attend an in-person gathering for health reasons.
- While no gathering can be risk-free, those that observe mitigation strategies have lower risk. So, it's important to follow the Cyclones Care strategies: don't attend if ill, wear face coverings, wash hands and remain physically distanced.
Send questions to a new email
To provide prompt answers, URT also initiated a new email, firstname.lastname@example.org, that Iowa Staters may use to submit questions about informal gatherings and "what's possible" or "how can I." The events staff who receive the emails have the expertise to respond.
Employees have three weeks to make benefits choices for the upcoming year when open enrollment launches next week. The open enrollment period begins Monday, Nov. 2, and ends 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20.
Don't forget flex
Employees who want to contribute to flexible spending accounts for health care or dependent care expenses must enroll and set deduction amounts each year. Last year's choices don't carry over.
Open enrollment is the only annual opportunity to add, drop or adjust benefits such as health and dental insurance, unless a qualifying life event allows a change during the year. Employees who use flexible spending accounts for health or dependent care expenses must enroll and set their contribution amounts during open enrollment, as those elections do not carry over automatically to the next year. For faculty and staff who do not plan to change coverage and don't contribute to a flex account, open enrollment is an ideal time to review benefits choices.
All changes are made via Workday and are effective Jan. 1, unless approval is still pending for a new life insurance policy.
Rates going up
As President Wendy Wintersteen, senior vice president for operations and finance Pam Cain and vice president for university human resources (UHR) Kristi Darr announced in an Oct. 7 message to faculty and staff, the employee share of ISU Plan health care insurance is increasing in 2021. Increases in premiums, copayments and deductibles will help balance a $4 million shortfall in the university's self-funded health plan, which hasn't increased premiums or employee costs since 2014.
The changes will increase most monthly health care premiums by $20-$25, office visit copayments by $5, and deductibles and out-of-pocket limits by one-third. Copayments for generic drugs from retail pharmacies will be up $5-$10, and copayment maximums for brand-name drugs will be 20%-25% higher.
A summary of the health care plan changes is available online.
The dental plan will have a small increase in cost-sharing, with the deductible for restorations such as filling a cavity increasing by $25 for both the basic and comprehensive options. There are no changes to the eyewear plan.
Health flex limit rises
The maximum annual contribution to a health care flexible spending account is increasing $50 to $2,750 for 2021, and the carryover amount -- the portion of unused health flex funds that can be used in the following year, instead of being forfeited -- is up $50 to $550. The dependent care assistance program's $5,000 limit is unchanged. Employees need to sign up annually during open enrollment to contribute to a pre-tax flexible spending account.
Life insurance changes
The benefits changes made to help balance the university's budget include capping the payout at $250,000 for the basic life insurance policy, which is free to employees and covers twice their annual salary up to the new limit. Additional coverage under the life insurance policy for accidental death and dismemberment has been removed.
An alternative basic life insurance policy that pays out $50,000 is new in 2021. Employees can choose either that plan or the double-salary option. The new policy is designed to appeal to employees who in past years have declined free life insurance coverage to avoid the taxes on the policy. When an employer pays for a life insurance policy, the portion of that premium that covers more than $50,000 in coverage is considered taxable.
Employees choosing to add basic life insurance after previously waiving coverage or adding coverage to supplement with optional life insurance coverage for themselves or a dependent must apply with Principal, the Des Moines-based provider, by filling out an online health statement. The necessary form is emailed to participants after they elect the coverage. Employees can reduce their optional life insurance coverage during open enrollment or drop coverage at any time.
How to access
Beginning Nov. 2, a link to "benefits open enrollment" will appear in the announcements section of the landing page that first appears when an employee logs in to Workday. After clicking "continue," Workday will display the benefits plans available. Choose "manage" to make changes, such as adding or removing a dependent. Choose "enroll" to add new coverage. Employees only have to click on plans they want to change or add.
After all changes are made, select "review and sign" to submit benefits choices and click "submit" on the final screen. No changes are allowed after the open enrollment period ends.
Detailed instructions can be found in an open enrollment job aid.
How to get help
Due to the Cyclones Care protocols established during the COVID-19 pandemic, UHR benefits staff will not hold in-person user labs or meetings. A webinar is scheduled for Nov. 4 at 9 a.m. It will be recorded and posted to the open enrollment website. For questions about open enrollment, or to set up a virtual meeting with a benefits office staff member, email email@example.com.
In a American Psychological Association report, eight out of 10 Americans said the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. Seven out of 10 said they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.
Faculty and staff not only are using new teaching methods with the shift to virtual instruction and hybrid classes, but they also are helping students cope during a difficult time. And that's on top of managing their own well-being during a pandemic, something that isn't always a priority.
Student counseling services director Christopher Hanes believes self-care in support of others is vital at the university.
"Self-care and self-compassion is not selfish, it's necessary," Hanes said. "We are in a pandemic. It is a chronic stressor, and over time we are going to need to refuel ourselves. I think it helps us be more ready and capable of supporting others by filling our own well."
Enduring a pandemic can lead to responses of fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, irritability, depression and boredom. Any of those responses are normal, but when they linger it may be time to think about seeking help.
"Ask yourself, 'How am I doing in my daily work?' or 'What is my level of fulfillment in my work?'" Hanes said. "It is natural for those to go down a little bit when we feel overwhelmed. When it takes a lot more energy to accomplish the goals you usually do or is a lot more tiring, those are indicators that you may need to recharge yourself."
Hanes points out several ways faculty and staff can promote a healthy community for their students and themselves:
- Be aware. Know the signs of distress and support available on campus and in the community.
- Make a statement. Acknowledge the stress everyone feels now, recognize that it is normal to struggle, and promote engagement and positive messages around mental health support.
- Set a routine. Create a workable schedule for balance and stick to it.
- Connect. Find a connection in your community and be open to new ways of connecting.
- Set limits. Limit your time with news, social media and other outlets. Control what you can control.
- Be kind to yourself. Accept your thoughts and feelings and embrace your struggles.
- Promote efficacy. Identify ways to accomplish tasks and goals in daily life.
The student counseling staff has a pair of presentations that are especially useful during the pandemic. "Creating a Community of Care in the Era of COVID-19" and "Don't Set Yourself on Fire to Keep Others Warm: Self-Compassion and Mindfulness for Everyone" are available to classes, groups and organizations through online request.
Hanes said his staff typically provide two or three presentations a week to colleges and departments.
"Our university, faculty and staff really want to support students, and they recognize the importance of the holistic approach to health and wellness," he said. "After I do the presentations, it isn't uncommon for me to see someone who was in the audience with a student in our lobby. It means they know we were here and they know how to connect with us."
Student counseling staff consult with faculty and staff on student support, but there are other resources available to Iowa State employees who may need help themselves:
The Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) allows employees and their families to call a 24/7 phone number and connect with mental health counseling services. EAP also provides life coaching, financial and legal support services, and elder care consultation. All EAP counseling services are free and confidential.
Therapy Assistance Online is an online self-help app for faculty, staff and students with an "iastate.edu" email address.
"It is evidenced-based self-help for mental health concerns," Hanes said. "Anxiety, depression, pain management, recovery, resilience, anger management are all things it covers."
The Adventure2 program provides opportunities to connect with the ISU community, and the Family and Medical Leave Act also is a resource. If an employee is eligible, it provides job-protected leave for care of a serious health condition, including many mental health conditions.
This week started the 11th week of Iowa State's use of a COVID-19 daily symptom checker, a single question delivered each morning to all employees and students as they start their day: Do you have a fever or symptoms of COVID-19? It's designed to assist with pillar four in the Cyclones Care behaviors campaign: Stay home if you are ill.
Inside asked Diane Beckman, manager of administrative information systems for IT services who leads the Qualtrics return-to-campus system project team, for an update on the campus community's use of the daily survey.
What has the response rate been for employees and students?
Average (Aug. 17-Oct. 23)
Single day high
Single day low*
*Single day lows for both populations occurred on weekend days
Have the response rates held steady or are they starting to fall off?
The student response rate initially declined more significantly than the employee response rate, but both have held relatively steady for several weeks. The weekday response rates have been higher than weekend day response rates. Overall, response rates are slightly higher for those who opted into text messages than those receiving the survey by email. Our response rates have been within the predications provided by Qualtrics for voluntary programs at similar institutions.
Could there be an option for people working 100% remotely to opt out of the symptom checker until their plans change?
ISU values the health of all our employees as well as that of the communities where we live -- not just our Iowa State community. So, it is important for all of us to be extra-conscious of any symptoms we might have while COVID-19 remains a public health risk. The daily symptom checker really is intended to serve as a reminder for all of us.
Why do we all receive the symptom checker on weekend mornings?
Iowa State University is a 24/7 operation. A significant number of our employees, including student employees, work weekend shifts, come to campus to continue research or choose to complete special projects. It is important for students and employees to always be conscious of their health during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the project team discussed frequency with university leaders, we agreed that the symptom checker should be available seven days a week to remind employees and students to complete a self-evaluation every day.
Answers to more questions
What happens to all that daily response data?
Personally identifiable data from the symptom checker is not used for research, and survey information is not available to supervisors or team leads. (If the checker tells you to stay home, you still need to notify your manager.)
Aggregated data is available to ISU public health professionals for review in identifying trends or potential hotspots on campus. The intent is to respond to trends with appropriate actions, such as attention to more cleaning and sanitizing or a different testing strategy.
What's the alternative daily "monitor" for individuals who need to quarantine?
For those who have been identified for quarantine, we created a daily symptom monitor called symptom tracker they'll receive during their quarantine period. The symptom tracker contains multiple questions and records specific symptoms rather than a single question about symptoms in general. Those in quarantine can turn off the symptom checker by including their university ID when they complete their contact tracing questionnaire. This ensures they receive just one survey during their quarantine period. Once their quarantine period is over and they aren't receiving the symptom tracker, they return to receiving the symptom checker.
A public comment period will begin Nov. 1 for a draft policy on considering the removal of names from university property.
The purpose of the proposed policy is to establish principles for reviewing named university property in the event a request is made to remove a name that is considered objectionable.
The draft policy will be available in the policy library on Nov. 1, and the public comment period will end Monday, Nov. 23.
The draft policy is the result of work this semester by the 20-member Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, co-chaired by Reg Stewart, vice president for diversity and inclusion, and Carol Faber, Faculty Senate president and associate professor of graphic design. President Wendy Wintersteen announced plans to establish the committee in June and named the committee in July. The group was charged with developing -- by the conclusion of the fall semester -- a university policy to ensure consistent, evidence-based and historically thoughtful means to evaluate naming decisions.
The committee met six times during the semester, while a subcommittee tasked with developing drafts for the full committee's review met about twice weekly. Early in its discussions, the committee decided to focus the policy on university property rather than honorary degrees. The Faculty Handbook contains a policy on rescission of honorary degrees.
Stewart and Faber reviewed the draft with the university's policy library advisory committee Oct. 20, and the full committee reviewed the draft again earlier this week.
The committee will review input as it comes in during the public comment period. After Nov. 23, the committee will finalize the document and submit it to university senior leaders for approval. Following final approval, the policy will be posted and announced in the policy library.
Sharron Evans' first day on the job as Iowa State's associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students was May 18. Seven days later, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of a man accused of using a fake $20 bill, killing George Floyd and prompting widespread protests.
So when Evans met with Michael Newton for the first time, they talked about the activism that was sure to come to campus and the community. Newton, associate vice president for public safety and chief of the ISU Police, had a specific project in mind. He wanted to rebuild the demonstration safety team, which was formed in 2017 to engage student advocates on safe solutions for exercising protest rights but had fallen quiet in the years since. He'd been waiting to have a new dean of students on board to ramp back up. Now, a team of faculty and staff trained to respond to campus demonstrations seemed even more urgent.
"Chief came to me and said, 'We really need to get this team back together,'" Evans said. "We jumped in and moved forward right away."
After staffing about a half dozen events over the summer and fall, the demonstration safety team is looking to expand, both in size and scope. It is recruiting employees to grow its ranks and planning more training for members and student groups.
"There will be a lot of firsts this year for the group that we're really excited about, and I think it's very timely given we have a contentious national election coming up. We're really trying to get ahead of that and be prepared," Evans said.
The team's purpose is ensuring campus demonstrators -- students and nonstudents alike -- are able to exercise their constitutional rights freely, safely and productively, within university policy. They work at protest events and proactively educate student advocacy groups. Members are trained on First Amendment rights, de-escalation techniques and Iowa State regulations on using campus space, Evans said.
When on the scene of a demonstration, team members identify themselves to protesters and let them know they're available for guidance or support. They also can step in to speak with an individual whose actions are turning disruptive or unsafe, an effective first step for addressing a potential problem.
"They're often times more willing to hear and respond more positively when it's a university staff person representing this team than our police officers, unfortunately," Evans said.
The demonstration safety team is in contact with senior leaders and works closely with law enforcement, but having university support other than police at protests is valuable because it allows officers to remain focused on public safety and avoid confrontation, Newton said.
"Part of my goal is to have police be the last response," he said. "Too often in communities, I see where the police are the first response. That's when things don't go well."
During a Black Lives Matter street march, for instance, ISU Police officers might concentrate on closing down roads to make a safe path. Meanwhile, demonstration safety team members might help protester support vehicles stay with the crowd as they pass through controlled intersections while simultaneously keeping an eye out for reckless behaviors by protesters, bystanders and observers. The different approaches complement each other, in part because ISU Police are an eager partner, Evans said.
"Our police do an excellent job with our students and are so developmental in their approach. It makes it so easy to work with them in these situations," she said.
Growing the team
The 26 team members of the demonstration safety team devote about two to four hours per month to the work and come from a variety of departments and units. Evans said the team is asking interested faculty and staff to consider joining the team so it can ensure it has enough members to cover an event at a moment's notice. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join or learn more.
"It's really about having enough diversity of people so that when spontaneous demonstrations happen, we have a variety of schedules so that enough people will be able to respond," she said.
Team members often hear of an upcoming protest a day in advance, but organizers typically don't disclose the location until shortly before an event begins. Once details are confirmed, Evans sends an email to the team to see who can attend. Evans and Newton, who co-chair the demonstration safety team, are always on scene. The team, which communicates via an online chat room during the demonstration, has protocols for what to do before, during and after an event.
Having more members also makes the team stronger because there are more chances that one of the faculty or staff members working the event knows a student involved, Newton said.
"That's part of why we want a cross-section of members from across campus. We can use those pre-existing relationships," he said.
Team members serve on five subcommittees: communications, health and wellness, student outreach, employee training, and event and records tracking. Training is a particular focus as the team rebuilds, both for its own members and student groups.
Evans hopes to conduct more de-escalation training and a tabletop exercise, which would help the team gain experience. Newton said stressing neutrality is always an important aspect of training new team members -- and police officers. It's a difficult proposition for many people.
"We all have opinions. But as a member of this team, you have to be neutral. You can't be cheering and chanting and being part of the group. That is hard for some of the folks to think through," Newton said. "It's OK to tap out and say, 'This isn't the right protest for me to work because my viewpoint is just really strong in this area.'"
Both Evans and Newton are excited about a new training developed for student activists on what they should know before assembling.
"I think it's going to be really good for our students to see that we're here to help and make sure these demonstrations happen. We're not here to stop them from happening," Newton said.
To increase the accessibility and searchability of Workday instructional information, all public-facing finance and planning job aids have been added to a new finance and planning portal managed through the ServiceNow platform. The portal is the last of three that has converted job aids to the new format, joining IT services (April) and human resources (August). Users can consistently use ServiceNow for all Workday-related instructional information.
"Users can browse for knowledge by category or simply do a search for what they need," said Rachael Gross, finance delivery operations manager. "For example, if they know they need some guidance on completing an expense report, they would search 'expense report,' and up pops all the knowledge base articles related to expense reports."
The knowledge base articles provide a repository of information to help users troubleshoot and resolve common questions. Gross said the growing collection is a mix of frequently asked questions, how-to's and standards. Articles will replace the job aids available in CyBox and on the WorkCyte resources page with a modern and maintainable solution.
"Our initial focus is to enhance our self-service capabilities," she said. "We'll continuously add and update knowledge base information, including the documents finance delivery teams use to help faculty and staff across campus. This is the first step in building user tools."
Next steps will include adding information on requests such as getting reimbursed for employee travel, correcting a transaction account, making a cash sale or billing another department. Gross said the finance and planning portal will become the one-stop solution for initiating finance delivery help.
Why the change?
By migrating the knowledge to a portal within ServiceNow, finance delivery team members will be able to access and share helpful knowledge within the system from which they are receiving service requests. The portal search feature allows users to search the content of articles, not just titles, as is the case with the CyBox system. Additionally, articles added to a ServiceNow portal are more digitally accessible thanPDF versions.
If users have questions that aren't addressed in the available knowledge in the portal, Gross recommends they contact a finance service delivery team member assigned to their tree.
"Users can create a ticket right there in the finance and planning portal, submit the question by email (email@example.com) or contact their finance delivery team member by locating them in the finance service delivery directory," she said.
Update your site's links
Departments whose websites contain links to job aids, such as those relating to accounting, grants, expenses and procurement, are encouraged to relink to corresponding articles on the finance and planning portal using the available permalink. This will ensure readers always are directed to the current version of the article.
A policy change approved in June and going into effect Jan. 1 will adjust the time period used to determine the amount of leave available to an employee under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
FMLA guarantees eligible employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave for medical and family reasons. Qualifying circumstances include a serious health condition, caring for a family member with a serious health condition, certain situations stemming from the deployment of a family member for active duty military service, and the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The leave is unpaid, though employees are required to use applicable accrued paid time off while on FMLA.
Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of family or medical leave every 12 months, but FMLA's provisions allow employers to define the 12-month period. Iowa State currently uses a calendar year method. Every Jan. 1, the bank of FMLA leave available to eligible employees has reset to 12 weeks.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, Iowa State's method for calculating the 12-month period will change and instead be set on a rolling basis. The time period will be based on the 12 months immediately prior to the first day an employee uses FMLA for a qualifying event.
Here are a couple of examples of how that will work:
- An employee requests to begin FMLA leave on Feb. 1, 2021. Looking backward to Feb. 1, 2020, the employee has used no FMLA leave during the 12-month period. The employee would have the full 12 weeks of FMLA available for the leave beginning Feb. 1, 2021.
- An employee requests to begin FMLA leave on Feb. 1, 2021. Looking backward to Feb. 1, 2020, the employee used four weeks of FMLA in April 2020 and four weeks in May 2020 -- a total of eight weeks during that 12-month period. On Feb. 1, 2021, the employee can take four weeks of FMLA, the 12-week entitlement minus the eight weeks already taken. Four additional weeks of FMLA leave would become available in April 2021, and another four weeks would be available in May 2021.
Employees who take FMLA between now and Dec. 31 will use whichever 12-month period -- the calendar year or the rolling 12-month look-back period -- benefits them more. Employees currently on FMLA leave will continue to be in a certified and approved status as outlined in their FMLA designation notice.
"Prior to Workday, ISU did not have a centralized detailed timekeeping and time-off system, and therefore utilized a manual process to administer the FMLA program, requiring us to take the calendar year approach,” said Andrea Little, employee/labor relations director for university human resources (UHR). “We now have the systems and capabilities to provide for a process that is in line with best practices and more efficient and consistent for supervisors and employees.”
For questions regarding this change, contact UHR employee/labor relations at firstname.lastname@example.org or 294-4800.
It's the final weekend for "Spirits in the Gardens" at Reiman Gardens Oct. 31-Nov. 1. Timed-entrance tickets are available for Saturday and Sunday nights but must be purchased in advance. Admission is $7 ($6 for members and ISU students).
Visitors can enjoy games and activities (5-7 p.m.) and, after sunset to 10 p.m., hundreds of lit, hand-carved jack-o'-lanterns and hologram projections. COVID safety features include a face covering mandate for all, one-direction garden pathways and pre-packaged treat bags that will be presented to children as they leave the event.