Government workers called to serve in the Persian Gulf have given up their normal everyday lives, but elected officials hope the Desert Storm soldiers don't also have to give up their families' health insurance and other employee benefits.
The only options they have now are to take out military policies or pay higher rates to continue their current coverage. Officials are finding, though, that the price tag of giving their employees back what they had before may be too high."Our initial impulse was to be very generous," said Bud Scruggs, Gov. Norm Bangerter's chief of staff. Then the governor found out it would cost more than $184,000 to maintain their benefits for just six months.
That amount would continue the present level of benefits - life, health and dental insurance - as well as make up the difference between military and civilian earnings.
At nearly $334 a month for family coverage, health insurance makes up the biggest chunk of the benefit package. The difference between the average state salary of just under $2,000 a month and typical military pay is $173.
Other costs are $3 for life insurance and about $38 for dental insurance. Employees would be expected to continue paying the same share of their benefits as they had before being called up to active duty.
Seeing the size of the price tag attached to maintaining employee benefits leads to the issue of whether government employees should be better compensated for their military duty than workers in private industry. Scruggs said that's a policy decision the governor still must make.
"The governor would very much like to see all Utah employers do what they can to help ease the burden of families whose breadwinners have been called up," Scruggs said.
Some large Utah companies already are following the governor's advice, coming up with the difference between what their employees are making in the service and what they used to earn.
Ruland Gill Jr., Questar Corp. manager of government affairs, said smaller companies may not be able to afford the same level of benefits companies the size of Questar can provide.
"These are difficult times," Gill said, adding that he is not aware of a company of any size that is concerned about government providing better benefits to the Desert Storm soldiers.
Lawmakers were briefed last week at a meeting with the governor on options for continuing to fund state employee benefits, but so far, no legislator is ready to sponsor a bill.
"Everybody likes the concept," said House Assistant Majority Whip Christine Fox, R-Lehi. "But we can't do anything until we know how much it's going to cost."
The problem with calculating cost is nobody knows how long the war will last. The six-month figure used by the state Department of Human Resources was only a guess.
Still, area governments already are doing what they can.
For example, Salt Lake County is paying half of the higher health insurance costs. Personnel director J.D. Johnson said the county is considering increasing that to 80 percent, the contribution normally made.
And Salt Lake City is letting workers now in the Persian Gulf use accumulated vacation time at the rate of only a few hours a week so they stay on the payroll and maintain their benefits.
"We owe these people something," said Pat Myers, state benefits analyst. "I just think it's our duty."