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Be true to your scale

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Two years ago, the Montana University System’s benefits committee tangoed with the idea of offering employees benefits on a sliding scale. They ran into roadblocks, though—“implementation issues”—and shelved the idea. John “Maverick” Mercer resurrected the concept at the last Board of Regents meeting: he proposed the committee take another gander at the sliding scales. The motion passed.

“The regents spend a great deal of time on the highest paid people,” says Mercer, who had another group in mind: “workers in the lower pay scales trying to survive on the wages they get—especially in high cost communities.” Offering insurance on a sliding scale, Mercer says, is “one of the ways I thought of to help lower paid employees.”

The sliding scale theory goes like this: the total amount of money in the insurance pool, and dollar contribution by the state, remains the same; within the pot, though, deductibles and co-payments can slide depending on an employee’s salary level.

Michael Brown doesn’t buy it. A professor of accounting and finance with 32 years at the University of Montana, and president of the benefits committee, Brown says “We’re talking about pitting one employee against another. To say that a professor with a $60,000 income has all kinds of money available…their budget is just as tight as the person with the $20,000.”

Not so, claims Steve Langley, union president, who hears directly from the people at the bottom of the scale. “They’re working their butts off, and they’re receiving public assistance,” he says. “They qualify for welfare, go to the food bank to pick up their food, [they] are paying off last year’s electricity bills.”

The cost of benefits has been on the rise, and it’s hitting these people the hardest, says Langley.

Some employees believe that a plan that charges different fees for the same product is fundamentally inequitable, and that the real problem is low wages. Kathy Crego, director of human resource services at the UM, has a different philosophy. “I view salary and benefits as a package. If we can’t make a big difference in hourly wages or salaries, in my mind, benefits is part of the package.”

A source who wishes to remain nameless agrees with Crego, but her perspective might have even more impact. She works for Buck Consulting, Inc., a firm that advises the University system on benefits issues. “One of the only employers I’ve seen [offer benefits on a sliding scale] is my own employer,” she says, “because of a concern for lower income people.” The trick, she says, is to “keep it simple enough so that you can administer it…The concept comes from very, very, very good intentions. Can it work? Yeah, I think it can.”

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