Yale’s refusal to offer a green-friendly employee reimbursement has caused a handful of bicycling workers to speak out in protest.
Under a provision of October’s $700 billion economic stimulus, should an employer choose to extend the incentive, it can provide its employees who bike to work a tax-free reimbursement of up to $20 per month, which can be used for costs such as purchasing, repairing and improving bicycles.
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But University administrators thus far have chosen not to dole out the benefit. Holly Parker, Yale’s director of sustainable transportation systems, said Yale is holding off on implementing the benefit because the provision’s language regarding reimbursements is ambiguous. Still, more than a dozen employees have already complained to the University, asking Yale to offer the benefits as soon as possible.
The employees claim that the University is discouraging greener transportation methods.
Earlier this week, Lisa Conathan, an archivist for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, realized that the University did not offer the cycling benefit. She then notified fellow employees, over a dozen of whom have since e-mailed complaints to both the Yale Budget Office, which manages employee benefits, and to University President Richard Levin.
YBO representatives told Conathan that Yale was not giving out the bicycling benefits because the University did not know how to administer the money, and because “there is not enough interest among employees” for the funds, Conathan said.
After Conathan contacted a group of her fellow Yale employees, Timothy Nottoli, the co-director of Yale Animal Genomic Services, also wrote an e-mail to the YBO.
“With recent attention and resources that Yale has given to ‘greening’ its operations, and with some effort spent on sponsoring and promoting cycling as a viable means of transportation in New Haven, I presumed that Yale Benefits would have done something to implement this commuting benefit,” he wrote. “Silly me.”
Indeed, some Yale employees pointed to the fact that regular bicycle expenses can reach up to $400 or more a year as reason for wanting to secure the reimbursement.
Parker, who played a key role in implementing other transportation benefits to Yale employees, stressed the ambiguity in the language of the legislation as reason for not moving forward. She said the law does not specify whether the employee reimbursement is taxable or tax-exempt. She added that she was waiting — like the benefit managers of many other companies, she said — for the Internal Revenue Service to provide administrative guidance.
Kevin McKeon, a spokesman for the IRS, referred comment on Tuesday to the IRS 2009 Employer’s Tax Guide to Fringe Benefits, which states that the benefit would be pre-tax, like the transit, parking and carpooling benefits the University currently offers.
When asked to comment, University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson responded simply: “Our Benefits Department is studying this new opportunity that employers may choose to provide.”
Likewise, Hugh Penney, Yale’s director of compensations and benefits, which manages the YBO, said Yale may consider providing the benefit “in the distant future” after its value to employees and the finances required to administer the benefit are measured.
Refusal to give the benefits is antithetical to Yale’s sustainability efforts, three University employees said. And considering Yale and New Haven’s strong push for bicycle-friendly policies three months ago, they added, the University’s current stance seems odd.
Vice President for the Office of New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65, for example, met with local bike activists last fall. And in addition to the then-popular New Haven Petition for Safe Streets — which advocated strongly for bike lanes in the city, among other things — New Haven officials have worked hard to pass environmentally friendly bicycle legislation.
On Monday, Conathan wrote to local activist group Elm City Cycling about the YBO’s refusal to provide the pre-tax benefit. Conathan said that YBO would “figure out how to administer” the reimbursement if enough employees were interested.
Juli Stupakevich, a museum shop sales clerk of the Yale Center for British Art who cycles to work, e-mailed the YBO Tuesday morning. “Yale University benefits from my decision to commute this way,” she said.
So far, the more than a dozen employee e-mail complaints sent have been fielded by Julie Kimball, YBO’s associate director. A Yale reply to one employee said the YBO will be researching the benefit.
But as it stands, there are no immediate plans to implement the reimbursement.