Ask an Expert: Mary Atkins, UNT System

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Mary Atkins, UNT SystemUNT System HR brings you UNT World experts with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Mary Atkins, UNT System Human Resources Benefits Advisor, has the answers to all your HR-related questions. The start of a new year always seems to generate numerous calls to the HR department for questions on everything from retirement and retirement plans to health insurance deductibles and co-pay inquiries to how to make a family status change to benefits. We figure if one person is calling with a question, there's probably plenty more out there with the same question who just didn't call or maybe don't know who to call. That's why we enlisted Mary. She gathered the questions she gets asked most this time of year and provides us with expert advice -- as well as how to reach HR experts at each campus for more info. So click the button below and let's get started...

Q: I think I qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but I’m not clear on the type of situations that fall under the act, how and when to apply for it and if I get paid during my leave. Can you provide clarity?
Mary: You can apply for FMLA via FMLASource – online, by phone or by email -- as soon as you know you aren’t able to work (or will not be able to work) due to your medical condition (or to care for your immediate family member’s condition). Applying can be done in several ways:

It’s important to have your care provider’s full contact information when you’re ready to apply for FMLA – your doctor’s fax number, for example, so that FMLA Source can send the Medical Certification forms to the doctor. A Medical Certification form (filled out by your doctor) is required for your FMLA request, so be sure you have the doctor’s contact information ready when you apply.  

  • FMLA provides job protected leave for family or medical reasons – whether that is your own medical condition or for the care of a family member’s medical condition. 

Now, what can FMLA be used for?

  • Birth, adoption, foster placement of a child
  • When you can’t work due to your own serious medical condition
  • Caring for the serious medical condition of an immediate family member (spouse, child, parent)
  • Qualifying exigencies when your spouse, child or parent is on covered active duty or is called to active-duty status as a member of the National Guard, Reserves or regular Armed Forces

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a serious medical condition for FMLA as "illness, injury, impairment or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care in a hospital, hospice or residential medical care facility, or continuing treatment by a health care provider."

Types of FMLA are continuous, intermittent, and reduced schedule:

  • Continuous (not working; on FMLA for a continuous period)
  • Intermittent (working intermittently and absent intermittently for treatment; using leave episodically due to your condition or your family member’s condition). This type of FMLA is "broken up" for shorter periods of absence as needed for the reason the employee’s on FMLA. 
  • Reduced schedule (working a reduced schedule, for example an employee who works eight hours a day might be on a reduced schedule to work five hours a day with three hours a day of FMLA leave).

So, is FMLA paid or unpaid? FMLA is defined as job protected, unpaid leave. If you have enough leave (that is eligible to use) to cover your absence, you will be paid -- because you have leave to cover your absence while on FMLA. When you have enough leave to cover your absence, you are paid during your FMLA absence. When you don’t have enough leave to cover it, that part of your FMLA is unpaid leave (you are put on a leave of absence without pay or your pay is docked when you don’t have enough leave to cover your absence). 

  • FMLA is for up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period
  • To qualify for FMLA, you must have worked for your employer for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours in those 12 months.  

The State of Texas is considered one employer for this qualification, so an employee who transferred to a UNT, UNTHSC, UNT Dallas, or UNT System job from another State agency (State of Texas agency or State of Texas public university) who has a total of 12 months of State service meets that qualifier.

Obviously, this is a lot of information! The good news is that you have HR Benefits Advisors on your campuses to guide you through this process (our contact information can be found here, along with some helpful FMLA info). We can help you understand what "eligible" leave is, and if you have enough leave for your FMLA time, help you request a Sick Leave Donation or Sick Leave Pool (donation of sick leave) if you don’t, help account for your leave while on FMLA (time/leave reporting) and navigate your entire FMLA request with you as your advisors – you aren’t alone in this!

Q: I’m closing in on retirement, but I’m concerned about not having health insurance for myself and my spouse. As a retiree, do I qualify for the same health insurance benefits as current employees?
Based on current state legislation, if you have a total of 10 years of service in insurance-eligible positions with State of Texas employers that provide the ERS insurance ("Group Benefit Plan," which includes service with any of our UNT System campuses), you will have a retiree insurance benefit when you are eligible to retire. And you can cover eligible dependents as a retiree if you are eligible.

If you are under 65 when you retire, your retiree insurance is the same insurance that you have as an active employee. Retirees who are 65 or over have two choices (Medicare-related health plans that require enrollment in Medicare A & B effective day one of retirement).

The 10 years of service is a key milestone to be eligible for the retiree insurance benefit. You’ll also need to be eligible to retire, which for the ERS insurance benefit eligibility means you must meet the "Rule of 80" (years of retirement-eligible service plus age equals 80) or be 65 with 10 years of service. 

Note to anyone who worked as a student assistant: I have fond memories of working in UNT Advancement and the UNT English Department back in the day, but those undergrad years as a student assistant are not "retirement eligible." They do count as State service, which means those months or years will count toward vacation accruals and longevity -- but they don’t count toward retirement eligibility or retiree insurance eligibility because, you may remember (maybe it was a long time ago, and you don’t), you didn’t contribute to retirement when you were an undergraduate student assistant. Years that count toward retirement eligibility are years that you contributed to a retirement plan (TRS, ORP).  

Eligibility for the retiree insurance benefit can be very specific to the person’s situation because there are quite a few caveats. For example, service with an ISD, UT System or TAMU System does not count toward the 10 years of service for ERS retiree insurance eligibility. And ERS service is counted literally by the month (so you need 120 months in an ERS insurance eligible job, minimum), which is different from how TRS service is counted. 

In HR Benefits, we meet with people over the phone, video or we help them over email – to understand when and if they will be eligible for the retiree insurance and what that will mean for their individual situation because there are multiple factors that come into play for this eligibility (including when their service started, which determines whether the State pays 100% of their retiree insurance premium or what percent the State will pay).   

It can seem a bit like a word problem from middle school math sometimes. It’s important that employees know these key milestones (10 years in insurance-eligible jobs; eligible to retire) but also that they have Benefits Advisors who can help them figure out when they will be eligible, what they’ll be eligible for, how they can cover their dependents with the retiree insurance benefit, etc. I want to encourage people to check in with us way ahead of retirement so they know what to expect and when they’ll meet those important milestones for this valuable benefit so they can plan for their future. 

Q: I participate in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), but I keep hearing about voluntary retirement savings plans. Are these plans for employees at a certain point in their careers or who earn a certain level of salary? What is the benefit of having a second retirement savings plan?
I’m glad the word is getting out there about the voluntary savings plans. These plans are retirement savings plans where you can contribute money from each paycheck to an investment to build retirement income. A lot of people don’t realize they have these options. The plans are in addition to your employer retirement plan -- so whether you are in TRS or ORP (the Optional Retirement Program), you can participate in these at any time in your career with UNT World to build retirement income. There’s no employer match, but you control how much you contribute and to what investment you contribute within the plan(s).

You can start and stop contributing when you want, and resume contributing when you want. There’s no special enrollment period. The plans are going to be subject to market volatility because you are investing in the market. But, you’re going to accrue more interest than a regular savings account, for example. You can also contribute pre-tax, which is going to lower your taxes on your paycheck. (With the 457 Texa$aver, you also have an after-tax option).

I like to say it’s never too late to start, but I will say time is on your side with these – meaning the sooner you start, the more you can save toward retirement – to have income for retirement that’s in addition to your employer retirement plan(s), Social Security, your savings/investments, other benefits, etc.

I know saving is a challenge for a lot of us. If an employee is living paycheck to paycheck, it might not be a good time to start saving toward retirement via one of these plans right now because these accounts are subject to rules that limit how and when you can access this saved income since the purpose of these is to save for retirement in the future vs. for immediate savings, like an emergency fund. But that said, I would encourage employees to start out saving 1% of your monthly salary (to the 403b) or $20 a month (to the 457) – the minimum amount required -- now. If you save $20 a month for 20 years with an investment return of 6%, for example, you’d have $9,241.15 saved toward retirement. Save $100 a month for 15 years at that rate and you’d have $29,083.09.  

When you think of these savings plans as a piece of the puzzle that makes up all of your retirement income, that’s a great benefit for you as an employee that can help you reach your retirement income needs and goals.  And it’s great to know it’s there for you to participate in when you are ready, if now isn’t the best time to start. Start when you can and start at a level that’s comfortable for you – you can always increase it down the road. It can really make a difference in the long run toward how much money you will have to enjoy in your retirement.

Q: The annual enrollment period for health insurance is closed, but for employees getting married or having a baby or needing to remove a grown child from their health insurance, what is the proper way to do that?
That’s what’s called a "Family Status Change" due to a "Qualifying Life Event." They can log into their ERS portal (, "My Account Login) to make those changes. We have a guide that they can use when making the changes, and if they want to know more about what is considered a Qualifying Life Event, ERS provides this helpful information. When in doubt, they can reach out to us in HR Benefits and we are glad to guide them on making those changes in their ERS portal.  

However, it’s very important to know that with any Benefits Enrollments and enrollment changes, whether at time of hire or with a Qualifying Life Event – timing is always key. ERS has strictly defined enrollment periods and defined reasons for changes. Employees with a Qualifying Life Event have 31 days from the "life event" (or QLE) to make those changes, or they must wait for the annual enrollment period (which is in summer).  

Changes made in the summer enrollment period aren’t effective until Sept. 1 of that year, so it’s important if employees have a qualifying life event that they log in to their ERS portal right away to make their coverage changes. Reach out to us in HR Benefits if there's any problems making those changes in the ERS portal during their enrollment period.

It’s also very important to know that when you add someone (a dependent) to your insurance, you do have to confirm their eligibility (to be covered as a dependent) through a process that involves a company called Alight. That confirmation has a deadline (specified by Alight in their communication to the employee) and the dependent will be dropped from coverage if the employee doesn’t provide Alight the requested documentation by the specified deadline. More info on this can be found on the ERS website.  It's super important that employees know there are two steps when adding dependents: 1) the addition/enrollment via their ERS portal and 2) providing documentation (usually a copy of a birth certificate or marriage certificate, but Alight indicates what they are requesting and sometimes additional documentation is required).

In HR, we are bound by the same ERS rules that employees are, meaning that we are limited in what we can do if: 1) the employee misses an enrollment deadline or 2) the employee doesn’t’ provide the requested documentation to Alight by the deadline. Sometimes employees think we have leeway to fix issues that we can’t fix. We can try to intercede or advocate on the employee’s behalf, but there’s no guarantee we’ll be successful in getting ERS to allow an enrollment that was after a deadline or add a dependent back to coverage if dropped because documentation wasn’t received from the employee! We have to work with and within the rules of ERS so we can never stress enough how important (as in, strict) those ERS enrollment deadlines are.

Q: What is the easiest way to contact HR about my benefits questions?
Well, it depends if you prefer to call, email or even meet in person to get the information you need. You can call us (HR Benefits) or email us, whatever works best for you. We have a toll- free number (855-878-7650 and choose option 5 for UNT Dallas, option 6 for UNTHSC or UNT System, and option 7 for UNT). We have a general email at But you can also reach out directly to your campus' Benefits Advisors at our individual emails, which is a particularly good way to reach out if you have complex questions, or several questions or need resources like links or guides (or want to set up a meeting). We can meet by phone or video (as well as in person when safety allows). We conduct benefits consultations/advisement for all kinds of benefits topics when employees need some dedicated time on the calendar to ask questions and get our help. Here's how to contact us individually: