Chants of “make the right choices, hear the worker’s voices!” erupted in the Usdan University Center at noon on Wednesday, as part of a rally organized by United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC). The rally was held to protest the rising cost of healthcare insurance for University employees, particularly members of the secretarial/clerical and Physical Plant Union, collectively the Office & Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local-153. Protesters demanded that administrators institute a tiered scale system for employee contributions to the health plan so that those at the bottom of the pay scale shoulder less of the increase than those at the top.

The rally was held in response to an Oct. 27 announcement that faculty and staff health insurance premiums will increase by 14.5 percent beginning Jan. 1. Additionally, as negotiated in their last contract, beginning Jan. 1 administrative assistants will be required to pay 33.3 percent of their health care premium rather than 15 percent. The monthly cost of the family HMO package will increase from $193.38 to $501.60. Staff must opt into the plan by Nov. 24.

Vice President of Finance and Administration John Meerts says that the 12 percent pay increase over three years that was agreed upon in the last secretarial contract was intended to compensate for any increases in health care costs.

“The last contract agreement with the secretarial and clerical union provided for pay increases when other members of the community endured pay freezes or reductions in income,” Meerts wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “The purpose of those increases was to mitigate the growing cost of participating in Wesleyan’s insurance plans.”

Members of USLAC contacted representatives of OPEIU Local 153 last week, as part of an effort to revive the student organization that was active during the Physical Plant Union negotiations in 2007.

“The University does listen to students, at least more that to [workers],” said USLAC member Diego Glusberg ’11. “It’s our job to rally. People who know what’s going on care.”

At the protest, members of USLAC and other students read statements from workers about how the increased cost in insurance will affect them. Secretarial and clerical workers are not permitted to picket, as stipulated in their contract, although many were present at the event.

“I’m trying not to cry as I hear them read these stories,” said Administrative Assistant Virginia Harris. “People tell me these heart breaking stories every day.”

At least 30 workers submitted statements that ranged from one-sentence declarations by employees who will no longer purchase insurance through the University, to discussions of the current morale among administrative assistants.

“I used to be proud and excited to brag about my great benefits and the wonderful place I worked,” read one anonymous statement. “Now it’s embarrassing because in order to protect my family’s health and afford things like rent and food I have to accept state aid.”

Some workers have decided to switch to the state-run Husky plans, while others are giving up insurance entirely.

“Because of the health insurance increase and my husband being laid off recently, we will be forced financially…to put our daughter on the Husky Plan and drop our plan to only myself, or maybe all together,” read another anonymous statement

One worker criticized the direction of the University’s spending.

“It seems that frivolous spending (i.e. the Roth annual holiday party) should be done away with when basically our salaries are being cut with this increase,” a worker wrote. “I would love for the costs of that party to be contributed to our health care premiums. Wesleyan is a different place to work than it used to be and morale is terrible. I guess it feels like we are being asked to give and give and give, yet we get nothing extra in return.”

Members of USLAC plan to discuss the insurance issues with Trustees at the Meet and Greet on Friday. They will meet at the Allbritton Center at 5:00 p.m.

Meerts says that administrators are looking into cutting healthcare costs.

“At last week’s faculty meeting, President Roth asked the Faculty Compensation Committee to work with the Treasurer’s Office to explore options that might reduce costs, taking into account all the stakeholders in our insurance plans,” he wrote.

  • Reality Check

    I don’t bring home $2,000 per month like Mr. Meerts . The insurance increase has just about no impact on his salary. This increase is going to make a difference on all aspects of my standard of living which I am sure is not any where near that of Mr. Meerts.

  • To Reality Check

    I’m afraid your information is incorrect regarding John Meerts take home pay. According to the link below, Meerts salary was about $240,000 back in 2008. I wonder if he would be willing to adopt some of us…

  • Anonymous

    There are other affordable options that companies today are adopting (HSA plans for example)

  • Alum ’73

    Recently cited as the 4th most expensive college in the country, yet Wesleyan is unable to keep their staff off state aid? Something is very, VERY wrong here.

  • Used to Love Wes

    I am very proud of the number of students who are offering their support, but no longer proud of the university that I once loved. If the staff no longer enjoys working here, how long will it be before the students don’t want to come either?

  • Can’t even afford Husky

    Apparently I am in the squeeze zone, unable to afford the increase in the insurance premium for the Wesleyan plan, and eligible for the taxpayer-assisted plan, at another $200 per month (which I can’t afford on my low Wes salary). My children now become uninsured, because the cost of living in Connecticut eats up everything I make, and my benefits are now so eroded that all the reasons I came to work here are gone. I believed in Wesleyan. I wanted to work here. Now I am unable to sustain the effort, and provide for my family. I will be looking to work elsewhere. I know that Wesleyan’s administration will be happy that I am gone and that they can replace me with a cheaper worker, but the students will not be well served by the “cheapest employee”model: the new employee with no understanding about how the institution works, how to help you achieve your educational goals, and how to address your needs and questions best on this campus. The cheap employee will not know how to serve you well, but hey, the university already got your commitment, so who cares?

  • Wesmart

    Has Wesleyan become the Walmart of American universities?
    Wesleyan staff competing with Walmart workers for state health care assistance? Strange bedfellows the Walton family and the Wesleyan administration. I wonder how any of them sleep soundly at night.

  • Anonymous

    It is shocking that the V.P. of Finance and Administration has math skills so poor that he could promote raises received by the employees affected by the health care premium increases as adequate to offset the rate hikes, especially when combined with cost of living increases. It is plausible that he is so used to making a salary where a percentage increase is actually significant that it did not occur to him to do some simple calculations. Possibly he is so arrogant as to think he can fool those that trust him into thinking his point has some merit. I would like to think that President Roth is questioning his allegiance to a man who does not take seriously the best interests of the University, its faculty, students, or staff. Employees who have been loyal to the University even though they were not paid ridiculously high salaries are being forced to make difficult decisions with long-term negative impacts on their families. In response to criticism, John Meerts has referenced his own recent lack of raise or bonus. To compare his salary to the economic situations most are in is more than offensive; it is irresponsible.

  • Anonymous

    I believe what needs to be stated is that all of the Union employees knew and understood that come Januray 1, 2011 according to our contract we would increase the additional increase that was negotiated 3 years ago. And yes, we did get a pay increase each year to compensate for the fact that we would be having an increase in our insurance. I want non union people that work within the university to know that it is not that I and many others object to the increase because we knew it was going to happen, but the way it was suddening more than doubled on us as thought it were not a big deal!! Almost slipped under the carpet as though we would all just sit by and let it happen!! I expected the increase but “more” than a 200% increase!!! I believe that a sliding scale for all employees with a minimum and max would benefit all within the university. Also,
    a BIG thank you to all the students that have come out to support our cause!

  • Anonymous

    I cannot but congratulate our student body for the example they set in Ethics. Despite their limited real- world experience, all the personal issues associated with University Life, and large amounts or Academic pressure these young adults are faced with they still make the time to fight for the common good! I hope administration listens to their young voices and help keep the hope for a” better tomorrow” alive!

  • Jack Sparrow

    “Take All – Leave nothing!” Sound like Mr. Meerts’ moto.

  • Karen Nichols

    I too would like to thank the students for getting out and fighting for equitable healthcare. Perhaps the university will listen to them as their constituents. It is a shame that they won’t listen to their own administrative and physical plant workers who keep the university running smoothly. We were told at an administrative meeting that the university has survived on the backs of the clerical workers. Now let’s protect those backs with affordable healthcare!

  • Anonymous

    Union employees are NOT the only ones burdened with these very high healthcare costs. The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of non-unionized adminstrative staff are NOT highly-paid employees. In reality, we are in the same pay range as many unionized staff members. I know, because I used to be one. The percentage of my pay that goes to healthcare costs is currently 10% and it has been for several years now. I am not opposed to the sliding scale fee idea for healthcare costs at Wesleyan because I already pay the high percentage that the union workers are protesting against. If students truly want to view this as a fairness issue, they should not forget about the unrepresented administrative staff who have been taking it on the chin for quite awhile now. Nobody’s crying me a river and my fellow administrative staff members and I work very hard on behalf of students to provide a supportive and seemless academic experience.

  • Linda DeRusha

    In light of John Meerts’ comments in this article, I decided to “do the numbers” to see how the “… 12 percent pay increase over three years … [that was] was intended to compensate for any increases in health care costs” actually played out for clerical staff. For staff at the highest grade AND step, total additional compensation BEFORE taxes is $396.36 annually, a whopping $7.62 a week. Unfortunately, staff not yet at the top do not fare as well. Those of us at the bottom (grade 2, step 1) will be losing $1041.44 in pretax income a year; even those grade 2’s at the top of their step increases will lose $331.64 annually pre-taxes. These losses are on top of decreased purchasing power due to out-of control increases in the cost of other basic and necessary commodities (gas/fuel oil, groceries, etc.). While we all have to deal with the economic realities imposed by recent events, their impact is much greater on some than others, not just at Wesleyan but throughout our society. The university has an opportunity here to make a statement about fairness, about corporate citizenship, and about valuing all members of the Wesleyan community who contribute, to quote President Roth, “above and beyond” to the excellence of a Wesleyan education.

  • wesworker

    One of the best reasons not to wait for negotiations to deal with the insurance crisis is the fact that it affects many who are not in the union. The university CAN address this community crisis now, with a sliding scale that applies to EVERYONE. The union will not prevent problem-solving just because we are still under contract. We need solutions right now!

  • Anonymous

    An HSA plan with matching employer contribution can be a more cost effective solution than HMO — as many companies today are discovering.

  • Tracey Stanley

    I think these statements would be such more more powerful if names were attached to them.

  • keep posting!

    Tracey- I’m sure the reason they’re anonymous is becasue most people have been here long enough to know that most of what they say usually brings nothing positive, and sometimes retaliation by managers. Even if people keep posting their stories/concerns anonymously, it’s one step above saying nothing at all. We all told upper management/HR that the cost would be too much for us to keep up with bills and cost of living, and they did not listen to us when this went into the contract almost 3 years ago….. It took a wonderful group of students to get the ball rolling, and even if the administration is pulling the “wool” over our eyes now, it’s getting some real attention.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like an interesting Wall Street Journal news story.

  • Our bright future

    This must be the hope and change we have been hearing about for the last 2 years. Imagine where we will be in another two years!
    Keep voting them in and expect the same results!