District and Union Clash Over Healthcare

S. Bollag

Elizabeth Lenczowski and Sophia Bollag

This year, the district and the teachers’ union failed to reach a compromise about budget issues. At this point, the district will not cover the increase in healthcare costs for current teachers, effective Jan. 1, 2010.

In response to a 2008 lawsuit filed by a former teacher against AUHSD and the Acalanes Education Association (AEA) contesting the age discrimination of retirees, the district has filed a cross complaint against the AEA, affecting 22 retirees and two widows. According to a Dec. 8 press release from the district, the original lawsuit and cross complaint argue that “the retiree health benefits section of the negotiated teachers’ contract is illegal in that it violates state law as it discriminates against certain retirees based on age.” Basically, the lawsuit argues that the current practice of paying retirement benefits for teachers who are under 65 (and do not qualify for Medicare) is illegal because it does not also pay the healthcare benefits of retirees once they qualify for Medicare.

The cross complaint may result in the complete elimination of benefits for current and future retirees and might actually take money from retired teachers—money that the district has already paid them in the form of benefits. In addition to retirees, this lawsuit might cut healthcare benefits for widows of former teachers, including the wife of the late Paul Yriberry.

Usually, the teachers and the district negotiate about financial issues (such as salaries and healthcare benefits) and come to a compromise over the amount of money the district will pay or not pay. The yearly increase in healthcare costs is typically one of the things the district ends up covering.

“For years, we have made the decision to take lower pay raises because we thought getting benefits for teachers with families is very important,” said psychology teacher Paul Fitzgerald.

This year, however, negotiations have not been completed and the district has failed to make the decisions which are usually made about benefits. Negotiations have been rescheduled for Jan. 6, 2010, which automatically ensures that the increase in healthcare rates for teachers, effective Jan. 1, 2010, will not be covered by the district. Teachers will have to pay for this increase themselves, which, for teachers on the Kaiser Permanente family plan, amounts to $750 a year.

“We just feel that $750 is a lot for our teachers with families to pay out of pocket,” said Fitzgerald. As he pointed out, “a lot of the teachers who have [young] families are not at the top of the pay scale.”

With little income and new family members to provide for, not having full healthcare coverage will be a problem for teachers with young families.

“This will be a financial disaster for my family,” said an anonymous teacher.

On Thursday, Nov. 19, teachers held a protest outside the district office just before the district held its board meeting. Many teachers brought their children along and held signs with slogans such as: “API goes up! Healthcare goes down?” and “Cutting health benefits hurts families.”

Teachers are worried that if the district does not cover the healthcare increase for 2010, the district will continue not to do so in future years. The cost of healthcare escalates every year and if the district refuses to cover the increase in future years, it will become a great financial burden for teachers.

As AEA Lead Negotiator and science and Latin teacher Nick Carpenter explained: “We [the teachers] feel it’s part of the proverbial slippery slope and if you start eating [them] away it’s not long until the benefits are almost completely eroded away.”

Superintendant John Stockton, however, pointed out that the cost of covering the increase in insurance premiums is equivalent to the cost of maintaining the salaries of three teachers.

Something similar happened six years ago, under former Superintendant Randall Olsen, when the district did not raise healthcare benefits to cover the increasing price of insurance. The teachers in the district had “contract days,” until the issue was resolved and the district agreed to pay the difference. A “contract day” is a form of protest where teachers only work for the amount of time that is denoted in their contract: from 7:30 to 3:15 with a break for lunch.

If teachers do this again in protest of lack of healthcare coverage, it would have a huge impact on the school because, as Carpenter explained, “most teachers work much more than that.”

While it is the increase in healthcare costs that will not be covered for current teachers, the lawsuit the district has filed against the union might result in cutting healthcare benefits completely for teachers who have already retired or who will retire in the future.

“Traditionally in spring, when teachers hit 60 and upwards, they consider retiring,” said Heard. “[But] no teacher under 65 is going to retire until they’re absolutely sure about what’s going to happen [with their healthcare benefits].”

If teachers who were planning to retire do not, and instead wait until they are 65 (when they will qualify for Medicare) younger teachers, who are less expensive to the school because teacher salaries are determined based on experience, will not be hired to replace them.

The district has said that it will layoff 16 teaching positions for the 2010-2011 school year. Because layoffs are also determined by experience, it is also the younger teachers who are more likely to lose their jobs. If fewer teachers retire this year than usual, more younger teachers will be laid off. By forcing teachers who require higher salaries to stay and consequently reducing the number of younger teachers, it seems that the lawsuit and cross complaint will add to the district’s already daunting stack of budget issues.

Stockton made it clear that “[the district is] not trying to strip retirees of their benefits.”

Whether or not the district intends to cut retiree healthcare coverage, however, this may be the inevitable result after the court rules on the legality of the issue.