Emory Report
March 21, 2005
Volume 57, Number 23


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March 21 , 2005
Survey says benefits are satisfying

by michael terrazas

Some 70 percent of Emory employees are generally satisfied with their fringe benefits package, according to the survey administered earlier this semester by the Benefits Review Committee.

The committee used the survey to gather data as it prepares to submit recommendations to President Jim Wagner to change the benefits package. A preliminary proposal for those recommendations is expected to make its way by early next week to members of University Senate; the Benefits Review Committee is an ad hoc arm of the Senate.

According to Watson Wyatt, the consulting firm helping the committee conduct its work, the national benchmark for employee satisfaction with benefits is 62 percent, putting Emory well ahead of the curve. (Watson Wyatt helped conduct the survey and tabulated the results.) Within the 70 percent figure is a slight discrepancy between faculty and staff, with 67 percent of faculty saying they are either somewhat or very satisfied (on a five-point scale) with benefits and 71 percent of staff employees saying the same.

“I was quite pleased with that number,” said Susie Lackey, president of Employee Council and a member of the review committee. “So it’s a good feeling, to have 70 percent satisfaction across the board. That speaks loudly.”

Yet the overall satisfaction may obscure more targeted concerns about certain aspects of benefits, according to Senate President Sharon Strocchia, associate professor of history and chair of the review committee. “There’s a dissonance in the report,” Strocchia said. “When you get into certain areas, you see where people are less than happy.”

Strocchia said the survey—which drew 2,787 responses (1,023 faculty and 1,764 staff) out of 8,500 sampled employees, for an impressive 31 response rate—yielded “no big surprises” for the committee but rather served to confirm some hunches. For instance, the committee expected differences between faculty and staff attitudes; in addition to the four-percentage-point difference in overall satisfaction, the survey revealed some 66 percent of staff considered benefits as an important part of their decision to work at Emory, while just 60 percent of faculty felt the same. Staff were more likely than faculty (45 to 36 percent) to grade Emory’s benefits as above average compared to other institutions.

Strocchia believes such differences are largely attributable to faculty measuring Emory against the national yardstick of top-tier research universities, while staff are more likely to use other Atlanta employers for comparison.

“That’s a large part of it,” she said. “There may be other demographic factors involved, but surely the fact of markets does have an impact.”

Strocchia also said faculty enter the work force later than staff due to extended post-graduate education, and that some faculty—especially those in business, law and medicine—may consider an attractive benefits package a just reward for their decision to turn down salaries in the corporate sector that often are more lucrative.

“Faculty do spend a long time in training,” Strocchia said. “By the time you get out with a Ph.D. and a postdoc, you’re really looking at age 30 or 35. In addition, many faculty accumulate large debt loads over the course of their education. It’s not unusual for Emory medical students, for instance, to complete their M.D. with a debt load of $100,000 or more.”

That interpretation could explain another faculty-staff difference that came to light when respondents were asked to rank-order five benefits areas: adequate income in retirement; paid time off that fits lifestyle; quality health care at reasonable cost; competitive base salary; and disability income. Staff ranked paid time off at the top of their list, while faculty put it at the bottom, choosing adequate retirement income as their most important concern.

Neither Strocchia nor Lackey thought the different priorities between faculty and staff would prevent the committee from developing recommendations that will benefit all Emory employees. In fact, Strocchia said the survey provided important information in two areas about which the committee didn’t really have any hunches: a possible “portable” courtesy scholarship, and personal health savings accounts.

About one in five employees said they would participate in a health savings account, which allows individuals to save money pre-tax to pay for health care expenses. Strocchia said such accounts “apparently are going to be the wave of the future, according to benefit analysts.”

Regarding courtesy scholarships, she said the committee wanted to gauge interest in having a reduced scholarship that employees could also use at other institutions. Sixty percent of respondents said they would favor this option over a full courtesy scholarship limited to use at Emory.