Benefits guru Kozar taking advantage of final perk — retirement


“Most people don’t think about benefits until they need them,” says John Kozar. But benefits have been Kozar’s life at Pitt since October 2003, when he joined the staff. Now assistant vice chancellor for University Benefits, Kozar is retiring on July 8, after nearly 19 years.

He had a long career in human resources even before coming to Pitt. After growing up in Ligonier and getting his undergraduate and graduate degrees from West Virginia University (“I tell people I always root for the blue and gold,” he jokes, since Pitt and WVU share those colors), he spent 17 years in all aspects of HR at U.S. Steel/USX. Then he moved to handle benefits for a spinoff known as Aristech Chemical Corp.

When Aristech was bought after only a year and a half and its local headquarters shuttered, “I was literally the last person out the door,” Kozar remembers. “I literally turned out the lights” — and moved to Chicago in 2002 with his young family to manage the benefits for United Airlines’ 85,000 employees and 25,000 retirees.

But his family wanted to be in Pittsburgh, and when his wife and kids moved back, he was resigned to commuting. That wasn’t unusual in the airlines industry, he says, but it wasn’t always fun: “My kids were young and I needed to be with them. My daughter, who was 3 or 4 at the time, would pull out her calendar and tell when I would be home.”

When he learned of the Pitt job, after five months of living in two cities, he was happy to interview and get it.

He found the work different here, compared to managing benefits for private industry, where changes came strictly from the top. The concept of shared governance, with faculty, staff, retirees and students all having input, was a big shift: “I admire Pitt and any institution that will do that,” he says. “It was a change but for me it was a welcome change.”

He also worked early to modify the University’s attitude toward its benefit offerings, he recalls — not merely administering them, but managing them by controlling costs and developing efficiencies. He took the University to what the insurance industry terms “self-insured,” which has helped Pitt limit costs and prevent larger premium increases, he notes.

Bidding contracts out for this and other benefits “added competitiveness,” Kozar says, and allowed the University to examine more closely: “Are they giving us a good rate? Are we paying too much? Are we getting the right bang for our buck?”

Kozar is proud of having worked from the beginning to offer new benefits, starting with a wellness program now called Wellness for Life. “Because what can you do to help control costs?” he asked. One answer is to encourage people to have healthier habits, and to offer incentives for employees to take biometric screenings, health risk exams and other preventative measures.

“Today, the University has the highest rates of participation in flu vaccinations outside of the healthcare industry,” he reports, thanks to partnerships with UPMC, Falk Pharmacy and the School of Pharmacy. “We essentially took the flu shot clinics to faculty and staff.”

His department also has added the annual weight race and Home Run for Health programs, as well as the popular MyHealth@Work wellness center on campus. “We always had the support for giving positive incentives,” he says of Pitt’s administration.

And he even enjoys the effort it has taken to publicize these and other new benefits through the years: “It’s a large workforce. It’s in a sense spread out, and as much as you might communicate, it’s hard to reach people. I always loved getting out there in front of faculty and staff … and trying to spread the word about all these great benefits.” Although COVID-19 has gotten in the way of such efforts over the past two years, in-person benefits events are starting to return. “We’ll do whatever it takes to reach out to everyone,” he said.

Sometimes Kozar seems to be everywhere, making presentations about new benefits and discussing upcoming changes at Staff Council, at the Senate’s Benefits and Welfare Committee and its Mental Wellness Task Force, in webinars and at health fairs.

Students also have enjoyed improved offerings through the years. Shortly after starting at Pitt, Kozar consulted with the student health service and UPMC about what health care protections could be offered for students (at a time before the Affordable Care Act allowed students to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26).

“We actually created the benefit with student health services and UPMC in about 2004,” he says. “They created it for us and ended up marketing it to other schools in the region. It’s just good to know that you’re offering the protection.”

He is also very pleased to have made changes to Pitt’s retirement savings program during his years, from going to a single record keeper and streamlining the investment fund portfolio to creating a retirement oversight committee, keeping administrative fees low and offering a 457b program for employees to put away more money before taxes.

More recent additions include a parental leave policy for those with new children; the Pitt Perks program of service discounts for employees; access to for child and elder caregivers; comprehensive international travel protections for everything from medical needs to passport and lost luggage protection and evacuation; the Savi program offering help with loan refinancing and forgiveness; new health coverage programs for athletes and for students at the regional campuses; and a new financial counseling and debt management program for those struggling financially or who may need guidance for buying a car or a home.

“In general, the University has what would be considered by most a very rich benefits program but in addition it’s also very cost effective,” he says. “I must say I’m proud of that because there’s a lot of hard work that goes into that — and because of the great customer service we provide to faculty and staff.”

It takes, Kozar emphasizes, “the dedicated efforts of a lot of people to make that happen. There’s a wonderful benefits team behind me that makes that happen — they want to be helpful to faculty, staff, students and retirees.”

Although he may be working past July 8, under contract to help with the transition to a new assistant vice chancellor for benefits and compensation, he and his family will be moving to North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“We’re situated a block from the beach, surrounded by many golf courses,” Kozar said. “I hope to start playing golf again — something I never had time to do during my career.”

What will he miss? “No doubt, first, all the benefits team,” as well as his colleagues in HR, and the faculty and staff with whom he has dealt through the years: “All smart people, very respectful — and that I’ll miss.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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