After rollback in benefits, GW staff create group to serve as mouthpiece

Staff members are organizing for the first time in GW’s history in the hopes that it will help them secure a spot at the table in discussions about their compensation.

The Staff Association, which will meet for the first time this Wednesday, was created about two weeks after hundreds of employees sent a petition to Provost Steven Lerman asking that tuition benefits not be rolled back next year. It marks the second time in a year that employees have organized new associations claiming their voices weren’t represented in benefits discussions.

Petra Salazar, executive coordinator for the GW Institute of Public Policy and a member of the Staff Association’s steering committee, said the group wants to prevent staff from being surprised by future changes to benefits.

“This was just indicative of a larger problem of staff representation at the University,” she said. “The administration has greatly underestimated staff’s ability to rally and find their voice to have themselves heard and assert their dignity as stakeholders in the University.”

She said the association will focus on tuition benefits before considering other issues to address. The group could have an easier time earning recognition from GW officials than the Faculty Association, which formed late last year, Salazar said, because there is no formal group for staff at the University.

The Faculty Association, on the other hand, competes with the Faculty Senate for time with administrators. The association formed after some professors said the Faculty Senate wasn’t adequately representing their views. Provost Steven Lerman has maintained that administrators would continue to look to the Faculty Senate as the official voice of the faculty.

Vice President for Human Resources Sabrina Ellis announced at a Faculty Senate meeting in September that the University would cover 90 percent of tuition for 18 credits a year for employees enrolled in degree programs, instead of 96 percent of tuition for 21 credits a year.

About 660 employees signed up for the tuition remission program last year, and about 50 took more than 18 credits in 2013.

About 1,000 employees have signed the petition asking top officials to reverse the policy change this month. It also asks administrators to grandfather in employees who are already enrolled in degree programs, so those who can’t afford the extra charges won’t be forced to readjust their budgets or drop their programs.

Caitlin Krutsinger, a program assistant at International Development Studies, said GW did not directly tell staff members about the changes to tuition benefits, unlike when it informed her that the health care plan she had been enrolled in was canceled this year.

“I have always received exemplary performance reviews, I’m top of my class as student, and I’m essentially having my pay cut,” Krutsinger said. “It makes me feel hurt and undervalued, and like my contributions to the University are not appreciated by them.”

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said officials “look forward to learning about this group’s goals and mission after their Town Hall next week.”

Andrew Zimmerman, the president of the Faculty Association, said he was impressed by how quickly the staff group organized. Both organizations formed after petitions regarding benefits packages didn’t bring about the changes employees requested.

“Both staff and faculty suffered from the same health insurance premium hikes that got the Faculty Association started last year,” he said. “The recent, sudden and unilateral decision to reduce staff tuition benefits, including for staff who were hired under the older, higher benefits, struck the staff as unjust and as a real hardship for many staff members.”

Lerman and Ellis sent out a letter last week acknowledging that the reduction in benefits was not “ideal,” but that GW remained competitive with peer institutions. Ellis said in September the change would save the University about $750,000, which would be used to lower health care premiums for employees this year.

“While the university maintains a firm commitment to providing learning opportunities through our tuition benefit, we recognize that it is equally important to provide competitive medical benefits,” the letter read.

Andrew Kloak, co-chair of the Stanford Staffers, a staff organization that was established at Stanford University in the 1960s, said the group’s long presence on campus has helped cement it as part of the school’s culture.

In addition to advocating for staff issues, the group also connects employees from across the university through social and networking events, he said.

Still, he said the organization is careful not to outwardly criticize the Stanford brand.

“We don’t want to be an HR group. We don’t want to cross into that line,” he said. “It’s more informational. There’s an educational component of what we do.”

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