Sonatina Fernandes, University Benefits

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Any University of Iowa employee who has filled out a flexible spending account reimbursement request in the last three years has one woman to thank for getting money back into their bank accounts. Sonatina Fernandes, a clerk in the University Benefits Office, plays a significant role in the auditing and processing of every spending account claim initiated by UI employees.

Formerly a travel agent, Fernandes says fate brought her to the University. She was born in East Africa and has lived in India and the Middle East, but has called Iowa home for the last 20 years. She enjoys traveling and is learning Spanish to complement the English and Hindi she already speaks. “Spanish is a wonderful language to know, besides English, especially when traveling,” she said.

Fernandes sat down with fyi to talk about the hardest part of her job, her brushes with royalty, and what it feels like to have recently processed the 100,000th online request.

What’s the best thing about your job?

The people I work with, hands down. They’re extremely supportive and helpful. The success I enjoy is a result of excellent teamwork. The other great thing about working here is the online system. This was a result of an exciting collaboration between Information Management—Finance and Operations and our department. It went into effect September 2007 and we have close to 6,000 people using the system—5,921, to be exact. In the past we only used paper forms, but after the implementation of the electronic system the number of paper claims has fallen dramatically.

A few of my favorite things…

Indian and Mediterranean food, and anything my husband cooks
Classic rock
Agatha Christie
Occasional meal out at Zaika
British comedies, Frasier, The King of Queens
The Hawkeyes

You recently processed the 100,000th online reimbursement. You’ve saved a lot of trees! How do you feel about that?

I’m excited about that! I never really thought about it in that way until I saw that number—100,000—and it really hit me. I think my 15-year-old is very proud of me because I’ve saved so many trees.

What is the most unexpected thing that has happened to you at work?

I joked once when I shouldn’t have while processing someone’s claim. He called to thank me and I said, “Don’t thank me. Say it in chocolates.” Within 10 minutes this person had driven up and said, “Can someone come out?” and he had a box of truffles! I said, “Unless it’s less than $2.99 I’m not allowed to accept it.” He joked and said, “Well, that’s what I spent: $2.99.” I doubt it, but that was an unusual thing. I watch when I joke now and don’t say things like that.

I’m sure you get a lot of grateful feedback because of what you do. Other than the chocolates, what’s some of the best feedback you’ve received?

People are grateful when I listen to them and it is more than processing “paper.” There’s a human being behind every claim. I try to remember that and empathize with their situation. I have to treat everybody fairly and claims have to be processed in the order received, but there are situations at the end of the month when I try to accommodate those requests to process high-dollar claims on the fly. People are appreciative and gracious.

To find out more information about covered spending
account expenses, visit

What are some tips you could give people to ease the reimbursement process?

I would advise people to look at the federal government listing of covered expenses. This can be accessed via a link on our web site. The government is constantly changing rules: before 2008, electric toothbrushes were covered, but subsequently this item was taken off the approved list. It is expensive for people to go out and buy items that they think are covered only to find out that they are not on the IRS-approved list. People can always call me to check before purchasing big-ticket items. The hardest part of my job is having to reject a claim. It brings me no joy at all, but we do have to adhere to IRS guidelines.

What do you like to do on days off?

I love to spend time with my family. I have a wonderful husband and a 15-year-old daughter and the cutest dog that ever lived. We hang out a lot together. We just started going to the rec center together as a family, so hopefully we will continue that.

What’s something your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?

When I was a travel agent in the Middle East I got to accompany the women of the Bahrain Royal Family on a week’s tour of Mumbai!

If you had to choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be and why?

Happy. I have a lot of faith. I think that keeps me happy because I don’t have to rely on myself all that much for all the answers.

One last question—who handles your flex spending reimbursements?

I cannot process my own, so anyone in the office from my supervisor to my co-workers can process my claim. I have to tell you, they audit my claim very closely!