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May 17, 2007

SAC presidential candidates address the issues

This year’s election for Staff Association Council (SAC) president, to be voted on by SAC members prior to the June 20 meeting, pits incumbent president Rich Colwell, who is seeking a third two-year term, against Steve Zupcic, chair of SAC’s benefits committee. SAC officers’ terms begin July 1.

Colwell has been on staff in the School of Engineering for 21 years, now serving as a manager of computer services. Colwell also has been a member of SAC for 21 years, including serving as an officer for 12 years.

Zupcic, assistant director of Community Relations, has been a staff member at Pitt for 36 years, and a member of SAC from 1979 to 1996 and from 2005 to the present.

Last week, University Times writer Peter Hart asked Colwell and Zupcic to respond in writing to questions about their priorities and positions on a variety of staff-related issues.

If elected, what issues will be your priorities?

COLWELL: Equitable salaries for staff members is the No. 1 priority that I believe the president of SAC should address. An annual increase that keeps pace with the cost of living and provides employees with real wage retention is another priority.

Other issues that are important are job security and career advancement and growth within Pitt. I have in the past addressed all these issues to varying degrees. I intend to expand my lobbying efforts in the future.

During my tenure as SAC president, a recurring issue has been the lack of training provided to supervisory personnel. This should be expanded and made mandatory as these administrative skills are learned. I would like to pursue the implementation of these programs.

ZUPCIC: My priorities as SAC president will be:

• To set goals based on strong philosophical principles of fair treatment and full involvement of all members of the University community; maintenance of a high quality of workplace life, and dedication to the long-term welfare of the institution, for it is only as long as the University prospers can its employees ever hope to prosper.

• To build stronger working relationships with both fiscal decision-makers and the faculty of the University so as to be able to realize our specific goals related to salary, benefits and quality of life.

• To more fully and more visibly involve individual committee chairs and committee members in communicating the work of SAC to the entire University community.

• To respect and appreciate the time and effort that each SAC member is volunteering to the organization.

• To work to maintain an appropriate employer-supplied array of safety-net benefits for the most vulnerable of our employees.

• To build a pool of younger talent on SAC to be able to take over leadership within the next few years.

You both served this year on the medical advisory committee. How are staff concerns, such as lower salaries, reflected in this committee’s deliberations?

COLWELL: The information discussed in the medical advisory committee is confidential. Of course rising health care is a concern here, just as it is nationally. I concur and have been supportive of the consensus of the SAC benefits committee that higher and more co-pays should not be used in place of increased premiums to conceal the cost of medical care. The health care plan is insurance, and staff should not be discouraged to seek medical help by the anxiety of the cost of co-pays.

ZUPCIC: It is my understanding that a primary concern of staff in relation to the work of the medical advisory committee is the ever-rising co-pays that are required to receive even the most basic health care for ourselves and our families. For many of us the increase in out-of-pocket medical expenses has outstripped any salary gains of recent years. These increases hit the least-well-compensated the hardest, taking the highest percentage of their wages. If in the future we continue to contain health care premiums, while concealing increased health care costs in larger co-pays and greater limits on preventative care, our health plan will cease to serve as a safety net for our most vulnerable employees. It will become little more than a partially subsidized pay-as-you-go system. While the work of the committee is confidential, I can say that as we move into the future I will approach it in a way that reflects concerns such as these.

What do you think of the Fitness for Life program? Do staff have enough on-campus workout facilities? Are there sufficient incentives to motivate people to participate? Is the program’s effectiveness being quantified and communicated sufficiently?

COLWELL: Any program that increases awareness of health and offers opportunities to be proactive in health care matters is positive.

As SAC president, it has been brought to my attention that Pitt staff members would like an increase in the availability of gym facilities. The addition of the Bellefield facility was a good addition, but staff need facilities that follow staff schedules and not student schedules. In addition it would be helpful to have staff-only hours. Examples are 6-8 a.m., noon-1 p.m. and 4-7 p.m. The students have the availability of multiple facilities, while staff have only two facilities on opposite ends of campus.

The incentive to improve one’s own health and quality of life is a strong one. However, I believe that more access to existing gym facilities and additional facilities would increase participation. This is something that employers in both the public and private sectors are increasingly offering their employees.

There have been measures to inform the staff community about the Fitness for Life program and there have been studies done that indicate that diet, exercise and preventive measures all add to the quality of an individual’s health. The Staff Association Council has not received any quantitative results on our program at this point.

ZUPCIC: Physical fitness is such a personal aspect of our lives. I do know from my own experiences that the Fitness for Life program has supplied me with vital tools for a healthier life and a decreased utilization of our health plan. The process of incentives for testing and diagnosis, followed by exercise and improved diet has worked for me and others. It has helped to make me a happier and more productive member of the University community and has improved the quality of my time away from work as well.

That said, compared to other campuses our size, we are sorely lacking in workout space available to staff. This problem is beginning to be addressed. More progress is needed. Any meaningful support for lifestyle changes around diet and exercise really do need to take the form of small-group support. NIH-funded research carried out at our own Schools of Nursing, Public Health and WPIC indicate that. While our participation in programs such as “America on the Move” is important, more individualized incentives such as small groups are also needed. A more extensive cooperation between Fitness for Life and the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program would make these possible.

How effective are Pitt’s staff development workshops?

COLWELL: While the workshops that are in place are informative and the facilitators are very competent, the program needs to be expanded. The skill sets necessary to perform many of the jobs at the University are proprietary to nonprofits, academia and Pitt’s own business systems. The expansion of this program will increase efficiency and add to career development.

ZUPCIC: In my own experience and from what I hear from other staff, the workshops are effective as far as they go. Most actually do teach improved workplace skills.

I think, however, that with a bit more creativity they could be taken just a bit further to cover in much more detail and in much more personally meaningful ways areas such as ethical decision-making, values clarification and sexual attitude reassessment. Coordination with resources such as the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program could make them more effective and create a useful resource for personal growth.

For most years recently staff raises have not kept up with the rate of inflation. How do you plan to address this issue?

COLWELL: My stance on this issue has been consistent throughout my service to the University and as president of the Staff Association Council. I have always lobbied for staff raises to be at a minimum to meet the increase in the Consumer Price Index. I have also been a proponent of the percentage of increase that goes to the “meet standards” be the largest portion. There are no negatives associated with giving staff increases for merit; however if annual increases do not keep pace with cost-of-living increases, staff members are actually losing real wages. As SAC president, I intend to continue to advocate for staff increases that address this issue.

ZUPCIC: With salaries being the largest expenditure for the University and staff its greatest resource, it becomes SAC’s responsibility to work with the fiscal decision-makers of the University toward an understanding that it is in the institution’s best long-term interests to maintain the highest possible salaries. This needs to be done not only to attract new talent, but to retain long-term employees.

Compensation issues in general, both salary and benefits, need to be presented in terms of their value to the long-term welfare of the University. SAC’s role needs to be one of assisting our fiscal decisions makers to resist the temptation to plan for the short-term as they determine salaries and benefits. We need to help them protect the University’s greatest asset, its employees.

What should be done to address salary compression, that is when new staff are hired at starting salaries higher than longer-term staff in the same position?

COLWELL: The salaries of those staff members who have been in positions for a number of years should be reviewed and adjusted for equity to those recently hired into similar positions. I feel that dedication to your position and the University should be an attribute that is rewarded financially. One way for an organization to thrive is to have a process for regeneration from within its own ranks.

ZUPCIC: The appropriate SAC committee needs to be made privy to specific data on salary compression: in which departments it is most widespread, which job classes and salary levels are most affected, after how many years of service it becomes most severe and to what level it affects employee morale. Again, as with any issues involving compensation, discussions with fiscal decision-makers and Human Resources professionals need to be carried out in the spirit of attending to the long-term welfare of the entire University community.

Some salary pool money is designated each year to be centrally allocated for faculty initiatives due to market and other forces. But there is no equivalent pool for staff. The salary policy says that faculty and staff are to be treated equally. Do you plan to target this issue and, if so, how?

COLWELL: I do not support this inequity and have advocated for a staff incentives equal to faculty incentives. Staff cannot be treated equally if faculty have an additional pool of funding. Faculty salaries are now up to other Association of American Universities public institutions, and it is time to bring up staff salaries.

I understand that the University, like all institutions, has limited funds for salaries and increases. However, it is undeniable that the work done by staff members has been, and will continue to be, an essential element in the success of the University.

I do believe that funds can be obtained by utilizing cost-saving efforts across the board at Pitt for such a purpose. This is a position that I have taken in the past, and I will continue to ask for a line item for staff incentives, equal to the faculty line item, to recruit and retain quality professional staff members.

ZUPCIC: Yes, this is an important long-term issue. This needs to be a part of any proposed plan addressing general salary levels and salary compression. And once again it needs to be approached in a way that addresses the continued well-being of the institution. We should not address it in terms of always asking for more and always lobbying for higher pay. That approach will get us nowhere.

What additional employee benefits should the University offer?

COLWELL: I would like to see Pitt staff members again retire with health care coverage equal to what it was before the last cutback. Many employees expected this benefit would be there for them after their long years of dedicated service to Pitt.

Another benefit would be discounted membership to private health clubs. This would add to the wellness and Fitness for Life philosophy.

I also would like to see an expansion of access to health care in a venue such as a clinic that would serve as an alternative to emergency room visits when you cannot get seen by your primary physician.

Available parking is a problem here in Oakland. I would like to see the University incorporate adding additional parking spaces in its facilities planning.

ZUPCIC: There’s a pressing and growing need for more comprehensive retirement planning and support during the transition to retirement. I am not talking just of fiscal planning needs here. This transition is difficult for many people. Human Resources has begun some movement in this direction. It needs to be expanded into areas such as psychological and social support, as well as financial counseling. It should also include assistance with changing housing needs, identifying part-time work and maintaining social networks.

We can also look to other campuses and local employers, large and small, for ideas on benefits that may enhance the quality of life for the entire University community. Our recent success around improving services and extending at-work delivery of prescription drugs by Falk Pharmacy suggests other sorts of conveniences that might be added to help each of us through a day that has just too few hours.

Some local Pittsburgh examples include: A high-tech company on the South Side allows new mothers to bring their infants younger than six months into the office to care for them as they work.

PNC has instituted flex-time working hours. After testing it on groups of employees doing similar work they found that it both improved morale and increased productivity.

Moving into the range of really creative workplace enhancements, Chatham University has instituted a plan to allow employees to bring their pets, particularly well-behaved canines, into work with them. They have documented using it as a recruitment tool, not to mention the exercise that employees get when walking their dogs at lunch.

There is a world of possibilities to be explored here. SAC needs to move forward creatively.

Regarding safety issues in the workplace: Does Pitt have adequate procedures in place for handling emergency situations? Is the campus community sufficiently aware of Pitt’s plans?

COLWELL: While I have several opinions on the safety of our University campuses, it would be unfair of me to evaluate the quality of safety and emergency plans at Pitt. However, I recently had an opportunity to tour the new Public Safety Building on Forbes Avenue. I now have a stronger confidence that this new facility is state of the art and appears from my perspective to have the latest up-to-date tools and technologies that are available to support our quality police force.

I believe more proactive measures comparing Pitt’s safety and emergency planning against like institutions no doubt would be well served: We can learn from others and definitely we have so much that we can share with them.

Growth is an essential element in the quality of the Pitt community, and safety is everyone’s responsibility. Additional safety workshops, expanded web sites, awareness posters and other forms of communicating safety awareness might also be considered by the University.

ZUPCIC: We are probably on par or even ahead of most college campuses in the area of emergency preparedness. The quality of our University police force surpasses that of most municipalities. Yet many departments have still not communicated emergency procedures to their staff. For some areas this is inviting disaster. Escape, assembly and containment plans are effective only if they are communicated effectively well before they are needed.

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