In the wake of recent United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) organized protests, President Michael Roth said that next semester the administration will explore the possibility of decreasing health care insurance costs for University employees on the lower end of the salary scale. The USLAC protests were 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 stipulated in their last contract, beginning Jan. 1 Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153 Secretarial and Clerical workers will be responsible for paying 33.3 percent of their health care premiums rather than 15 percent.
Roth stated that one potential solution is a tiered health insurance system, which would stipulate that the cost of heath insurance increase for higher-paid University employees while decreasing for employees who earn below a certain income threshold. He emphasized, however, that faculty and staff will be consulted before any decisions are made.
“We’re looking at a variety of approaches to how we pay for health care and looking at different prices,” Roth said. “[A tiered system] would fall most heavily on faculty so we want to understand how that would work and ensure that there are no unexpected consequences.”
Local 153 Steward and Administrative Assistant Virginia Harris said she supports the implementation of a tiered system.
“It’s not going to affect the overall budget or the tuition or anything like that,” Harris said. “We’re just saying, ‘take the total amount that it costs, have the wealthier people pay more, and make it more affordable for the people at the bottom.’”
Roth said that administrators plan to discuss the issue with faculty and staff over the course of next semester and submit recommendations before the end of the fiscal year.
“We’re going to propose some forum where faculty can talk about [the possibility of a tiered system], and hold meetings with staff to see what their perspective on this is next semester,” he said.
Harris said that she has not received any response from administrators to the union’s public criticism of the policy.
USLAC has held two protests since the cost increase was first brought to their attention last month. At both, students demanded that the administration communicate with the union, listen to the workers, and adopt a sliding scale system for health care costs.
On Nov. 17 students read aloud the statements of clerical workers in the Usdan Campus Center, outlining how the increase would affect them financially. Many workers said they were considering opting into the state-funded Husky plan for themselves or family members because they will be unable to afford the increased cost of the University plan. On Nov. 19, close to 30 USLAC members and supporters gathered outside the Trustees Meet and Greet at Zelnick Pavilion, chanting and banging drums. USLAC sent three students into the event to distribute informational packets and discuss the issue with trustees.
Although the protests focused on the situation of the clerical workers, Roth pointed out that many non-union University employees earning comparative salaries face the same insurance costs.
“‘Single payer now!’ is what students might have been chanting,” Roth said. “I’m glad students care, but this is really not just about the clerical workers.”
USLAC member Nick Petrie ’12 said the reality that non-unionized workers face the same healthcare rates does not decrease the gravity of the situation for Local 153 members.
“[The fact that other employees pay the same insurance rates] doesn’t mitigate our outrage to the issue—it just increases it,” he said. “It simply means there is an issue for them as well. We think there is a connection between the union as an organized voice that can complain and has more job security, since they may not be in a position to be able to complain.”
Harris said that she believes the increase in healthcare costs will have a negative impact on the Middletown community as a whole.
“Those of us who’ve lived here for a long time always knew that Wesleyan was a good employer with good benefits, and by virtue of employing Middletown residents, was contributing to Middletown’s greater good,” Harris said. “To erode all of those things has a big impact on Middletown as a whole.”
Harris said she believes that the decision of multiple employees to switch to the Husky plan reflects poorly on the University.
“I just can’t understand how a tax-exempt institution can tell the taxpayers that they’re going to hoist their lowest paid employees onto a taxpayer-funded insurance plan,” she said. “They exist in the middle of this community, and they’re going to turn to the people around them and say, ‘Okay, you pay for this because we don’t feel like making it affordable.’”
Roth emphasized that the final outcome will depend on the views of all involved parties.
“If we decide as a community that people who make more should pay for those who make less for health care, that’s a reasonable view,” he said. “I look forward to hearing what people think about this.”