The Benefits Team: Small But Mighty

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Thursday, September 17, 2020



In January 2020, Lehigh’s Human Resources Office completed a reorganization stemming from two significant retirements the prior summer. You can read an overview here.


We’ve been looking at each new team created by the reorganization. In our last issue of The Spot, we met the Talent Management Team. This month, we’re introducing the newly configured Benefits Team.


As the Director of Benefits, Patti Florkowski leads a team of three that includes Benefits Analyst Kimberly Drey and Human Resources Associate Caitlin Leidy.


“We are a small team, but we work so well together,” Patti said recently. “Think about it, benefits affect every part of an employee's time at Lehigh. It starts during the hiring process when we first discuss our benefits with candidates and continues all the way through and into retirement.”



As COVID-19 closed Lehigh’s campus, the Benefits team found themselves with a new set of priorities including administering changes in benefits regulations from the federal government, coping with changes to the retirement plan created by university cost-saving measures, and assisting employees who were facing qualifying life events and illness in the midst of a pandemic.


“There isn't one part of my job that has been normal since March,” Patti said. “There is no precedent to look back on for the changes we have been required to make to our benefits in light of the pandemic.”


As Director, Patti has assumed responsibility for the administration of the employee benefit program, which includes health and welfare benefits, tuition benefits, paid time off and disability benefits as well as the Lehigh University Retirement Program. With her team, university leadership and others, she works to ensure Lehigh is providing  a comprehensive benefits package that offers  access to the best medical providers and services in order to maintain the health and well-being of employees and their families. 


“But of course we are still watching the budget, trying to keep premium costs for employees affordable while maintaining plans that can address their needs and take care of them in times of illness,” she explained. “This can be very challenging as healthcare is rapidly changing and medical and prescription costs increase at a much greater rate than merit increases. It’s a juggling act for sure and COVID-19 just put a few more balls in the air.”


HR Associate Caitlin Leidy has been at Lehigh for five years, originally joining as an HR Assistant soon after earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Patti says Caitlin got up to speed quickly. “She’s a very fast learner,” Patti said. “She doesn't shy away from hard work. And she has the attention to detail that is so important in this job.”


Caitlin’s role requires frequent interaction with staff and faculty.  She spends a great deal of time explaining benefits, counseling employees on benefit issues, such as helping them prepare for retirement and navigating difficult decisions. She also oversees the general day-to-day maintenance of the benefit plans which includes everything from ensuring staff and faculty benefit guides are up to date, to counseling individuals and supervisors regarding Family Medical Leave, to the annual Flexible Benefits open enrollment process. She enjoys being able to work with all aspects of the benefits program.


“I think Caitlin’s people skills are great,” Patti noted. “She can explain the benefits package to every employee, whether it's the new Provost with decades of experience or a new employee fresh out of college setting up their first retirement account. She treats them all with respect, and they're all equally important when it comes to being an employee of Lehigh who needs care.”


It’s not always easy, though. “With our obligation to comply with the laws surrounding employee benefits, we can't just allow someone to make mid-year changes to their benefits because they want to. They need to have a qualified reason. So sometimes we have to have hard conversations,” Patti explained. “We are empathetic, and no one likes to say no, but sometimes it has to be the answer because we can’t make decisions that violate legal requirements or go against our plan documents.”


Caitlin says pursuing her certification as an employee benefits specialist (CEBS) through a program from the Wharton School at Penn and the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans has helped her have those discussions with staff and faculty. 


“The courses I’ve taken have put our plans into the context of the governing bodies that make and enforce regulations around employee benefits and I feel I've learned and grown a lot in that area,” Caitlin said. “It helps me communicate with our employees about our benefits from a more confident position.” 


“What I really like about us as a Benefits team is that we each bring different perspectives to the table,” Caitlin added. “I appreciate that we take our time, we really listen to one another. We see all sides and then we try to identify a solution that's in the best interest for everyone involved.”


Kim Drey, who holds a certification from the Society for Human Resources Management / HRCI as a Professional in Human Resources and has worked with the Lehigh Valley Business Coalition on Healthcare for a number of years, is the analytical thinker on the team. In Patti’s opinion, she brings a particular way of thinking to the team that is invaluable.


“Kim’s mind works differently than anybody else's. She always thinks of scenarios that I hadn’t even considered,” Patti explained. “She takes a much deeper dive into the data and the analytics for the healthcare component and the retirement plan.”


“I do think that we do have different approaches to the work within our team,” Kim agreed. “We all have a knack for the numbers aspect of things, but what I like is that I'm invited to ask if we can look at things in a different way. And all three of us feel comfortable voicing our ideas.”


As a benefits analyst, Kim’s work revolves around numbers. “I do a lot of audits, whether it be auditing the retirement plan in its entirety or anything that we put into the Banner database,” she said. “I’m responsible for checking the mathematical calculation of what we're putting into the system and making sure it’s accurate.”


“Some of my responsibilities include working with the many aspects of the Retirement Plan, inclusive of both the Plan Investment and Plan Administration Committee, coordinating annual audits, and filing of reports with the Department of Labor. I also work with our Health and Welfare Benefit Plans and their Department of Labor filings and reports.”   


At the same time, Kim derives particular contentment from her work with staff members using Lehigh’s short term disability plan. “I feel I’m helping them at a time when they really need it,” she said. “I try to make a process that isn’t very simple as maneuverable as possible. I work with them from the start until they hopefully transition back to work.”


Kim says one of the really nice things that she gets to do is sit down with staff who are preparing to go on leave after giving birth. “They like to dot all the Is and cross all the Ts. We go over every detail so that they are ready when the time comes.” 


With a lean team of three, Patti, Kim and Caitlin rely heavily on the Shared Services team for administrative support and more. “We partner extremely closely with Shared Services and I don't expect that to change after a lot of the COVID-19 work settles down,” Caitlin noted. 


“We couldn’t accomplish what we do without the Shared Services team,” Patti said. 


The challenge of managing her team during this period has given Patti a new perspective on planning for the future. “Right now my vision is to get the Benefits team and every employee at Lehigh through this crisis and out the other end healthy,” she said. “While there is never a dull moment for my small team, we enjoy our work serving our fellow Lehigh employees.”