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Campus News

Staff Forum gets heated as equity stipend debated is reignited

Christian Diaz, Staff Writer

Staff Forum has set forth a motion to request from the board of trustees information relating to a possible equity compensation for employees in domestic partnerships who pay taxes on medical benefits. The proposal is a response to unequal treatment of domestic partnerships on behalf of the law, which does not require married couples to pay taxes on extended medical coverage.

The language used in Warren Wilson’s proposed Equal Opportunity Statement, which was subject to a vote at the last Staff Forum meeting on Jan. 19, has made some staff and faculty members uncomfortable. The proposed statement as it was shared during the meeting referred ambiguously to the treatment of domestic partnerships.

The statement was crafted to describe the college’s commitment to providing equal employment opportunities. A controversial disclaimer was included, stating that “some exceptions to the policy may apply to certain benefits for same sex and opposite sex domestic partners and civil unions.” Some felt this portion of the statement alluded to an equity stipend which would compensate those employees in domestic partnerships who pay taxes on medical coverage for their partners.

The debate has loomed over Staff Forum ever since the college reformed its medical insurance policy to allow employees’ same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners to qualify for coverage.

“The difficulty is that while the state laws and the federal laws allow people who aren’t married to own a house together, to have children together and to be financially united, they haven’t gotten to that point with the tax laws,” said Staff Forum Parliamentarian John Casey. “So the extension of benefits to the domestic partnerships is allowed but those benefits have to be counted as taxable income. That was the latest wrinkle last year.”

Several employees sought to solve the problem by proposing that the school offer an equity stipend compensating domestic partners for the unequal treatment that is imposed by the law. The board of trustees has revisited the issue several times within past years, but the legality of compensating employees to offset federal taxes could put the institution in a legal gray area.

“It is not permissible for an organization to directly pay the taxes of its employees, so any ‘grossing up’ of salaries to accomplish this purpose engenders questions in and of itself,” said Jon Ehrlich, vice president for administration and finance. “It should be made clear that this is not an issue of employee benefits, as the college’s insurance plans do provide coverage for domestic partners. Rather, it becomes a salary issue because any payment to employees for any purpose is part of their compensation.”

The matter is further complicated by the implications of such a stipend on the institution’s budget at a time when budgetary concerns have been at the forefront of Staff Forum meeting agendas.
“From the strictly financial side,” said Ehrlich, “there is no question that paying stipends to employees who are in domestic partner relationships would be an additional expense that the college would need to determine how to pay. Ultimately, to pay a stipend would entail raising insurance rates for everyone and/or increasing student tuition.”
Alison Climo, social work program director and director of academic assessment, supports the proposed equity stipend.

“Obviously we have tremendous budgetary challenges,” she said. “To ask for something that would cost the college more than we are already expending is asking for a lot. What I’m disappointed by is that there hasn’t been an acknowledgment that providing an equity stipend would be the right thing to do, even if we couldn’t afford it.”
An equity stipend was first proposed officially in 2009 when the board of trustees asked the business department to assess the economic feasibility of such a stipend. The final report was sent to the board but not shared with Staff Forum members. In Sept. of 2009, Sandy Pfeiffer informed employees that the board had voted unanimously against the proposal.

A motion was put forth at the last Staff Forum meeting requesting that the 2009 report be shared with employees.
“Whatever the concern is,” said Purchasing Supervisor of Facilities Management and Staff Forum Co-Convener Deborah Anstrom, “an effort can be made to address the issue but information and reasoning has to be provided by the board of trustees.”

Some resistance to the disclosure of the business department’s assessment was expressed during the meeting. Providing a figure is complicated for several reasons including the possibility of breaching privacy and the general difficulty of approximating how much compensation a given couple is entitled to.

“If there’s one unmarried couple with medical benefits for the partner, who have no children, are renting a place to live and have a very simple tax return, you could probably figure out how much extra they paid for their medical benefit,” said Casey. “This other couple over here has children, has cashed in some bonds that year, has a mortgage, had a major financial loss due to a bad investment. Pretty soon you can’t figure out what caused what in that tax return.”
Some employees feel that budgetary implications are trivial.

“For me,” said Climo, “the issue is that it’s not about the money. It’s about doing the right thing. The first step is to say that the tax laws are unjust. I think as an institution we need to recognize that this is an issue of justice not an issue of finances.”

“This sort of decision is in the hands of the trustees and they have already decided once,” said Casey. “It seems to me that if we can’t come back to them with some new reasoning or some new something, why would we think that they wouldn’t decide the same thing again?”

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