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.