For a fifth consecutive year, the Board of Governors for Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) has voted unanimously to freeze tuition.
Tuition for in-state undergraduate students, close to 90% of whom are Pennsylvania residents, will be flat for a sixth consecutive year. Had tuition kept pace with inflation, it would today be 21% higher.
Board chair Cynthia Shapira said freezing tuition has been a top priority for the State System universities and helps low-and middle-income families.
“Our students depend on PASSHE universities for a high-quality education at the lowest cost,” Shapira said in a statement.
An increase of $33 million to PASSHE universities would be provided by Pennsylvania’s budget.
“PASSHE is proud of our partnership with the state, which helps Pennsylvania’s students get the education and skills for the most in-demand jobs at the lowest cost,” Chancellor Dan Greenstein said. “Higher education is changing, and State System universities are continuing to evolve to meet the new needs of students, employers, and Pennsylvania’s economy.
“Together with the state, we are strengthening the pipeline of talented and skilled people from the classroom to the workforce and providing value to students as they gain the knowledge to build successful careers close to home.”
Along with maintaining in-state undergraduate tuition at $7,716, PASSHE students will receive $125 million in university-funded financial aid to help them afford their education. Increased state funding and PASSHE universities saving $300 million through a commitment to cost efficiencies helped make tuition freeze and aid possible.
A decade following its introduction and a year since its passage, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act introduced by U.S. Democratic Senator Bob Casey takes effect today.
The bipartisan legislation requires employers to provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations at work and ensures they are treated fairly in the workplace. Fair treatment and accommodations for pregnant workers include additional bathroom breaks or a stool for workers who stand so they can work safely.
Casey introduced the legislation in 2012 and the bill passed last December.
“It took 10 years of fighting to get this passed, but today, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is now the law of the land,” Casey said in a statement. “This law is simple: it ensures that pregnant workers have the right to reasonable accommodations, like a stool or water bottle, while at work. Women in Pennsylvania and around the country can breathe easy knowing they do not have to choose between their jobs and a healthy pregnancy.”
Casey repeatedly introduced the legislation over the past decade and advocated for its passage. The bill finally passed in 2022 as an amendment to the FY23 federal spending bill.
When it comes to offering health benefits to employees, every employer has two primary goals: improve coverage and lower costs.
Achieving those goals may help encourage a healthier workforce, while reducing absenteeism and presenteeism, both of which can sap productivity and make an employer less competitive. Importantly, medical care ranks as the second largest expense (behind salaries) for employers, so it is vital employers maximize the value of their health benefits.
Rather than watching health plan premiums go up year after year, what if employers could cut costs by up to 15% or more compared to their existing benefits package? While that might sound too good to be true, the growing popularity of level-funded plans is making that possible for some employers when they move from fully insured plans. Tellingly, a recent report found that 42% of small firms use a level-funded plan, up from just 7% two years ago.
To help employers, especially small and mid-size businesses, navigate the transition from fully insured to level-funded (or even self-funded) health plans, here are five steps to consider:
Evaluate Your Plan Options. Historically, employers often selected either a fully insured plan or, as companies grew larger, moved to a self-funded arrangement, which yielded potential savings but came with additional financial risks if medical costs exceeded expectations. A third option some employers have recently adopted more often is a level-funded plan, which offers the potential savings available through a self-funded approach but with less financial risk. In short, employers with level-funded plans pay a fixed monthly fee to cover claims, administrative fees and stop-loss insurance, which help protect against unexpectedly large claims. If medical claims are lower than expected, the employer can potentially keep some of the surplus refund at year end.
Request an Underwriting Analysis. To determine if such upfront savings would be possible for your business, the next step is to request an underwriting analysis to review your company’s previous medical claims and other factors to help determine what reduction may be available. This can be coordinated by an insurance broker or by connecting directly with a health insurance company that offers level-funded plans. Generally, employers with relatively younger and healthier workforces may save the most. In fact, employers with UnitedHealthcare level-funded plans on average paid 18% less than for comparable fully insured plans.1
Invest in Wearables and Wellness. Once an employer opts for a level-funded plan, it is important to help employees and their families play a more active role in their well-being and adopt ways to save on out-of-pocket costs. For instance, adding a wearable device well-being program can equip employees with a smartwatch or activity tracker, enabling individuals to monitor daily activity levels and earn financial incentives to help cover routine health care costs. Encouraging employees to get or stay active may help build a culture of wellness while reducing the prevalence of costly chronic conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease.
Leverage Other Types of Technology. In addition to wearables, employers with level-funded plans should include coverage and resources related to virtual care. That’s because virtual care, also known as telehealth, may offer employees a more convenient and affordable way to access medical care, including primary, urgent and behavioral care, and chronic condition management. With ongoing spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, encouraging the use of virtual care is especially important as an alternative to in-person care. In addition, unlike with most fully insured plans, employers with level-funded can receive detailed monthly data reports to help them better understand how employees are using their health benefits. This can enable tailored clinical interventions and communication campaigns, including to help reduce avoidable emergency department visits and the use of out-of-network care providers or facilities.
Integrate Additional Benefits. Importantly, employers moving to a level-funded plan should continue to take a whole-person approach to health benefits, including maintaining or adding coverage for vision, dental, hearing and behavioral health services. That’s because research shows a link between overall health and oral, eye and hearing health, including a connection to various chronic medical conditions. Plus, companies that combine medical coverage with specialty benefits through a single health care company may in some cases be able to save up to 4% on medical premiums2, as well as leverage data to help improve health outcomes, flag gaps in care, drive productivity and reduce costs.
By considering a move to a level-funded plan and adopting these additional strategies, employers may make offering medical coverage to their workforces more affordable and personalized.
 Average savings for UnitedHealthcare fully insured groups migrating to All Savers for 2020 and 2021.
Paul Marden is CEO of UnitedHealthcare of NJ, PA and DE
A local contractor working with the midstate’s biggest employers has access to sophisticated project plans and resources and often a history of other projects to draw from.
When those clients are small businesses, contractors find themselves taking a more education-forward approach.
Contractors that frequently work with small companies can be more consultative on a project and often take on more responsibility when it comes to educating a client on the contracting process, said Jessica Meyers, CEO of JEM Group, a Camp Hill-based general contractor.
“When you are a small business, you come across these moments in time where you are growing or you have a need for space and really you are so focused on the day-to-day operation of the business that to then be thrown into the world of space design, architecture, construction costs, it’s a whole new realm,” said William Sutton, vice president of customer experience at Mechanicsburg-based general contractor, Mowery Construction.
While it may seem obvious that a small business would have less experience with construction projects, and therefore need more guidance than large employers with designers and project managers on staff, contractors that work regularly on small business construction are well aware of the nuances.
Focusing on the smaller projects
At JEM, Meyers is sure to explain to her staff that the process of building a new building is especially significant for some clients.
“Getting the loan, getting the financing. Often times that’s a very stressful process,” said Meyers. “You have to meet them where they are. Being mindful of how big of a deal this is for them- that can really make a difference to your customer.”
Meyers went on to say that choosing the right contractor can be particularly difficult for a small business, seeing as though they need to find a firm where their project won’t get lost in the shuffle of larger projects.
For some contractors, the value proposition of working on a $100,000 project may simply not be a good fit for their structure. Ephrata-based Benchmark Construction primarily works with larger employers, so if they are working on a smaller project, it is often for a repeat client they have a longstanding relationship with.
“We have done small business projects, it’s not that we aren’t interested in that kind of work, it’s just that sometimes they tend to be smaller contract values and we are a company that is set up for taking larger projects,” said Stuart Smith, vice president of market growth at Benchmark.
Mowery’s smaller projects tend to take the form of everything from senior living cottage renovations to industrial warehouse upgrades and office renovations. For those smaller projects, the company has formed a special projects division that allows it to complete simple, smaller projects separately from its more complex, time and resource heavy builds.
The special projects group also allows Mowery to introduce itself to clients in a less risky way, according to Sutton, opening the company up for larger projects in the future.
“The special projects group is dedicated to smaller projects. We classify that as a million or under and we have a team dedicated to that,” said Sutton. “We have a robust field staff of carpenters and laborers that can do hands-on work in the field for us. We can expedite projects because it’s out our own field staff.”
Educating a client
The education piece of working with a small business includes helping that business stay in the confines of their budget. According to Meyers, that could include figuring out that a company may not be able to afford an addition, but could instead fit something into a smaller footprint.
“We try to make sure that we identify the cost as early as possible,” she said. “90% of the time they aren’t doing this with cash. They are going for financing and need the exact number to take to the bank.”
A client may also simply not be able to visualize what they need. Someone may know they need 10,000 square feet, but don’t have a grasp on what they will need from a design perspective, said Sutton.
“We have a hands on approach for small businesses,” he said. “Explaining the process, supporting and educating them on ways to save money, making their space more efficient and navigating the construction process.”
An employer may also not be aware of the entire process, such as securing permits and approvals from municipalities, said Smith. This can be particularly true since an owner is likely to look at their contractor as a partner on the project.
The current pent-up demand for projects as well as higher cost and wait times for materials can also be a surprise to businesses outside of the construction industry. Lead times for doors and doorframes alone can delay a project for up to six months, according to Smith.
“Our preconstruction team is immediately looking for long lead items,” he said. “Things that have to be purchased soon so we don’t have to delay the start of construction.”
More companies are bringing workers back into the office — and some employers want to know about vaccination status.
Morgan Stanley (MS) told employees who work at its Manhattan headquarters that they have to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before returning to the office. The bank also said in a memo to New York employees that staff working in buildings with a “large employee presence” must confirm their vaccination status by early July.
A panel of experts will provide guidance on COVID-19 exposure and answer questions in a webinar hosted by the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The event will be held by Zoom from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday, Nov. 23.
Employers need clear advice on what to do if an employee tests positive, is exposed or may have been exposed to COVID-19. As information on COVID continues to evolve, making the right decision to keep employees safe and on the job can be difficult.
The webinar panel will include Nate Rivera, Pennsylvania Department of Health; Michele McHenry, WellSpan Health; Bob Dowd, Lebanon County Emergency Services; Nicole Mauer, Community Health Council; and Peggy Morcom, Esq., Morcom Law. They will discuss efforts to slow the spread while providing up-to-date guidance to keep regional businesses and their employees safe and operational.
The webinar is open to the public. Registration is required at lvchamber.org under the Events tab, or at https://bit.ly/38XUtFb.
Across the web, business associations and governmental organizations are offering vital information for employers as they keep employees and clients safe, manage remote working strategies and maintain their businesses during a nationwide closure.
Employers can use these resources to stay informed about the COVID-19 pandemic.
CDC Travel: Information on high-risk countries, tips on traveling in the U.S. and frequently asked questions for travelers.
The U.S. Small Business Administration: Coronavirus: Small Business Guidance and Loan Resources is the landing page for its Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. You’ll find guidance for small business owners regarding the issues they could come across at this time.
HR Compliance Bulletin: A release from Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Chamber Insurance that outlines possible compliance issues for employers.
When they got their diplomas this month, the 400 graduates of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology were offered 4,000 jobs by 1,300 employers– about 1,000 jobs more than were on the table last year.
While the offers were good news for the students of the Lancaster-based technical college, they are a sign of just how many employers are looking for skilled workers.
The search begins well before graduation. Many employers are investing time and resources into partnerships with colleges like Thaddeus Stevens in a bid to stand out.
One is Nestle Purina Pet Care Co., which operates a factory in Hampden Township, Cumberland County. The Nestle Purina factory and Thaddeus Stevens have been working together for the past decade. The factory’s managers sit on several of the school’s advisory councils and the company donates equipment and money to the school. It also provides tours and internships to students.
William Griscom, president of Thaddeus Stevens, said Nestle Purina is among the college’s strongest partners, providing more resources and assisting in more classes than most others. He noted that Nestle Purina leaders from St. Louis, Missouri also have shown interest in the partnership and visited the college.
In return, Nestle Purina gets a say in what up-and-coming students learn both in class and through internships that can make the school’s graduates prime hires for the factory.
“Thaddeus Stevens’ training, along with the on-the-job training Purina provides, enables us to stay ahead of the curve with regards to hiring,” said Mike O’Brien, the manager the Nestle Purina factory, which employs 325 people. It makes numerous Purina brands including dry food for the Cat Chow, Dog Chow, Beneful, Purina ONE and Pro Plan brands.
Hundreds of companies partner with Thaddeus Stevens. And they acknowledge that they could run more shifts and operate more equipment if the state had a better-trained workforce, according to Griscom.
“We have companies that need to replace retiring employees and they don’t have the resources they need,” Griscom said. “They clearly do not have the human capital, and partnerships like this are certainly important to them and to us.”
Other companies that partner with Thaddeus Stevens include High Industries in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County; electronic parts supplier Phoenix Contact in Lower Swatara Township, Dauphin County; and custom machinery manufacturer Astro Machine Works in Ephrata.
The college’s industrial partners advise the school in creating a curriculum and purchasing equipment.
Some offer more than just advice.
In 2016, Purina donated $25,000 toward the purchase of a “Sawyer” robot for the school’s electronic engineering and electro-mechanical technology programs. The robot, created by the now-defunct Boston-based Rethink Robotics, operates in factory settings alongside human workers.
O’Brien said the investments help prepare the coming workforce to handle an increasingly technical environment and work with equipment used in factories like Nestle Purina’s.
He also said that many job opportunities come from the internships, with graduates filling roles engineering, control technology and maintenance.
“What I witnessed at the school is that you are given a lot of technical understanding but it is hard to apply it because it is so far outside of your understanding of how things work,” said Stephanie Mekhail, a controls specialist with Purina who interned at the factory in her second year at Thaddeus Stevens. “By the time I got through that second year I could see where all of my skills could go and what I needed to focus on and I was hired here once I got my degree.”
The continued investment in the college’s 23 programs from area businesses totaled $1 million last year. Griscom said that businesses have realized they need to get the attention of the next generation if they are to have enough people to make up for the loss of Pennsylvania’s retiring baby boomers.
State leaders also are shining a light on the issue.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2019-20 budget includes a program to invest $35 million in workforce development. Republican lawmakers also are working on a package of bills to address shortages of skilled workers.
Griscom said he is glad to see wider interest in the challenges facing employers.
“Workforce is the No. 1 issue in Lancaster County and we have to work together because it is in our best interest,” he said. “We have great industries in Pennsylvania with a great, vibrant, diverse economy and we have to keep that going.”
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