I am Ginny Harris, and I work at Wesleyan. Although I manage hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money at work, I am unable to find the money in my personal budget to keep my family on Wesleyan’s health insurance plan. I have just completed the application to put my youngest daughter on Connecticut’s taxpayer-funded Husky health insurance plan. The fact that I qualify for this assistance makes me feel ashamed and vulnerable. I had hoped to keep my two older daughters on the plan, but it looks like they will be uninsured next year. I can do no more. I am a 50-year-old administrative professional at a progressive and prestigious university, and I am angry that this university is telling me that they know that I can afford this year’s 160 per cent increase—and if I really can’t, and I have to go to the state for assistance, well, that is just fine.
I am sharing my personal story because, as a union steward, I am hearing the stories of the union members every day, stories of pain and hardship, but I must keep their confidences, and so can only share my situation. I find myself in this situation after downsizing in Aug. to a small two-bedroom apartment in Rocky Hill. I have rent to pay, and a car payment, and car insurance, and utilities, and I have no more room to downsize or extricate myself from any of these necessities. For expenses, I am at the bottom of what it takes to live near Wesleyan and pay the overhead to be close enough to work here.
I can also speak to the history of the situation, because I was there at the table at the last contract negotiations. After a protracted negotiation with the Physical Plant workers, which began with a long list of take backs, the University finally moved on some of that list, but was insistent about raising their personal contribution to the health insurance premiums from 15 to 33.3 per cent. The university would not budge, sticking to the stance that this was “the only fair way.”
Representatives of the university repeatedly pointed to the lower-paid administrative staff, who were sometimes hired at lower wages than the upper tier of union staff, and who had been paying the higher percentage. Their solution was to push down on the union workers. As the secretarial/clerical workers took their turn at contract negotiations, it was clear from the beginning that this one demand was already set in stone. (And this was well before the economic downturn; none of us were yet anticipating those impacts.)
We successfully negotiated a delay in the implementation of the increase to Jan. 1, 2011, preceded by raises in our base salaries, which were low compared to many of our counterparts in comparable institutions. So we signed for increases of 3 per cent the first year, 4 per cent the second, and 5 per cent in 2010. But self-insured Wesleyan had a bad year for claims, and now announces an increase in premiums across the board of 14.5 per cent.
Now my family coverage requires a personal contribution of $193 per month, but as of Jan. 1, that would cost $501 per month. That is an additional $308 per month that I cannot find in my budget. Sadly, after raises in 2008 and 2009, I qualify for state assistance for a family of two. That leaves my older daughters out in the cold. Many union members have come forward to their stewards to say that they will have to apply for the state program and drop the Wesleyan plan. We have tried to speak out about the situation, but the university has adopted a stalling stance, stating that “it is inappropriate to speak about it because it will be addressed in negotiations.”
It is not true that addressing the issue must wait. In fact, it cannot. Our contract expires on June 30, 2011, and this tactic ensures that we are in this jam for at least a year, until the benefits enrollment opens in November—and there is no guarantee that we will have settled a new contract by then. To refuse to engage with a group of community members who spend their workdays right under their noses is not responsible. We need relief now. There is no contractual breach here, but that does not in any way prevent the university from rectifying the situation right now.
I am a representative of the secretarial/clerical union workers, but I am standing up for the immediate implementation of a sliding scale for all university workers, union or not. What could be more fair than that? I want to believe that Wesleyan can be responsive to this dire situation, listen to our voices, and act in a timely manner. In this case, the moment is right now. There are no legal or contractual barriers. It is simply a question of will.
Harris is an Administrative Assistant at Wesleyan University.