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Home » Clarion » 2014 » September 2014 » A Union Victory: Adjunct Health Coverage is Now Stable, Permanent

A Union Victory: Adjunct Health Coverage is Now Stable, Permanent

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[NOTE: Adjuncts eligible for health insurance via their employment at CUNY must enroll in the new City plan by September 19 to assure continuous coverage. Details available here.]

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As of October 1, health coverage for adjuncts will be provided by CUNY, through New York City’s Health Benefits Program, as has long been the case for full-time faculty and staff. The change brings stability to adjunct health insurance, ending the threat to its survival that came to a head in 2011.

Five hundred adjuncts and full-timers rallied together outside a CUNY trustees meeting in September 2011.
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The shift to CUNY was the result of a prolonged struggle which the union has fought for 14 years. “Moving adjunct health insurance to the City plan is a triumph of persistence,” said Marcia Newfield, the PSC vice president for part-time personnel. “For 14 years, in the face of reactions of ‘improbable,’ ‘ impossible’ and ‘you must be dreaming,’ the PSC never gave up because of its commitment to justice. So many societal advances require this kind of stubborn spirit and dedicated work. We are fortunate to have built a union that can stand up to these challenges.”

The Whole Union

“Everyone who had a hand in this victory, which defies the current austerity agenda of reducing worker benefits, can be proud,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said in a message to covered adjuncts on August 1. “The agreement is a landmark in the PSC’s history of fighting for equity for adjuncts,” Bowen wrote. “We took a collective, principled stand on equity, and at last we have succeeded.”

“It took the whole union to win adjunct health insurance,” said Steve London, PSC vice president and Welfare Fund executive officer and trustee. “For years, the Welfare Fund trustees insisted on maintaining a quality, free health insurance plan for adjuncts, even as CUNY representatives attempted to charge adjuncts and provide a lesser benefit. The entire bargaining unit, full- and part-timers, devoted millions of dollars from a contract settlement to the Welfare Fund to stabilize its finances as all its costs rose and the unfunded cost of adjunct health insurance soared. This gave us the time to work out a permanent solution. I am proud of our union for its consistent united action to maintain adjunct health insurance and make it permanent.”

Coverage under the old adjunct health insurance program, from the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund, comes to an end after September 30. Adjuncts who currently have health insurance must fill out enrollment forms for the new plan and submit them to their campus Human Resources office by September 19 in order to ensure continuous coverage when the new City plan takes effect October 1.

Under the new program, health insurance will be provided through the NYC Health Benefits Program, and prescription drug coverage will be provided – as it is for full-timers – through the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund. The PSC also won expanded benefits for adjuncts eligible for health insurance: they will now be entitled to individual optical, hearing and dental benefits through the Welfare Fund.

A prime goal for the union – which the PSC achieved – was to keep eligibility requirements unchanged.

As in the past, health insurance will be available only to those adjuncts who consistently carry substantial workloads and who do not have access to other coverage. Terms for family health insurance coverage remain similar to those under the old insurance program provided through the Welfare Fund, with individual participants able to buy family coverage at full cost.

Cloud Lifted

“It’s great that the PSC has gotten this put in place,” said Linta Varghese, an adjunct assistant professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College. “It’s been stressful not knowing what would happen. I’m relieved that the health insurance is on a permanent footing now.” With half of CUNY’s classes taught by adjunct faculty, Varghese and others said, the survival of the program never should have been in question. But even if the change was long overdue, it was still welcomed with enthusiasm.

“Being a part of the City Health Benefits Program, like the full-time faculty, feels like we’re finally being acknowledged for the work that we do,” said Jenna Lucente, an adjunct lecturer in art and design at City Tech. “It’s an acknowledgment that adjuncts really are part of the staff and we therefore must be included in a stable system of benefits.”

The long-running problem of inadequate funding for adjunct health insurance at CUNY had made the program financially unstable for many years. Union proposals for a more rational, sustainable system had been repeatedly rebuffed by management, leaving adjunct coverage to be kept afloat through a variety of short-term measures. By 2011, however, the underfunding had become so severe that stopgap solutions would no longer work: in July 2011 the Welfare Fund’s Trustees announced that the current adjunct coverage could not survive for more than another year. Unless a more sustainable funding source or an alternative form of coverage was put in place, the trustees concluded, the current plan would have to be replaced by a severely curtailed benefit.

The root of the problem went back to the creation of adjunct health coverage at CUNY in 1986. Before then, despite increasing reliance on adjunct labor, CUNY had offered its adjunct faculty no health insurance coverage of any kind. That changed in 1986, when CUNY reached an agreement with the PSC under its previous leadership in response to adjuncts’ demands. But unlike the health insurance for full-timers, which is funded through per-capita payments for each member enrolled, the health insurance for adjuncts was funded with an annual lump sum.

Growing Gap

CUNY’s lump-sum payments soon began to fall short of the actual cost that the Welfare Fund incurred in purchasing insurance coverage for eligible adjuncts. As the number of adjuncts employed by CUNY grew sharply and costs of health insurance escalated, the gap grew wider and wider, and the resulting deficit ate into the Welfare Fund’s reserves.

When the current PSC leadership took office in 2000, it plunged into contract negotiations with CUNY. A priority demand for the PSC was to change the system for adjunct health insurance. CUNY adjuncts should be covered the same way other part-time municipal workers are covered, the union said: through the NYC Health Benefits Program. But management rebuffed this proposal, agreeing only to a small increase in its annual flat-rate contribution.

In subsequent rounds of contract bargaining, the PSC again proposed that adjunct health insurance should be provided through the City plan, and management again resisted the idea. The contracts ratified in 2006 and 2008 did include some increases in CUNY’s contributions to the Welfare Fund, but these were still inadequate. The deficit continued to grow.

In 2003, the basic premium cost paid for by the Welfare Fund for each covered adjunct was about $3,500, while CUNY’s average payment per participant was about $2,600. By 2011, the average premium cost had risen to $8,100. But CUNY’s average payment per participant had dropped to $1,700, a consequence of more and more adjuncts coming into the system while CUNY stuck with flat-rate payments. The roughly $900 per-person gap in 2003 had grown to $6,400 per person by 2011.

When the Welfare Fund trustees announced at the end of July 2011 that the current system could not survive for more than another year, the union’s response was immediate. “The Professional Staff Congress is prepared to use every resource at our disposal to maintain adjunct health insurance – and we believe we can win this fight,” President Bowen wrote in an August 16 letter to members. The defense of adjunct health insurance, she said, was the union’s top priority for the coming year.

Strategy and training sessions in August 2011 led to plans for a mass rally on September 26, 2011 at the Board of Trustees’ first meeting of the new academic year. The goal of the campaign was straightforward: maintaining comparable health insurance for eligible adjuncts with no lapse in coverage. Accomplishing that would require securing alternative funding and finding a structural solution to the chronic cost gap, such as including CUNY adjuncts in the City or State Health Benefits Program.

Support

The immediate goal was to press CUNY to include the funds required for such a transition in its budget request for the upcoming fiscal year. Union leaders had concluded that in order for the funds to be approved by the legislature, they had to be included as a regular part of CUNY’s budget, just as funds for full-timers’ health insurance are.

The run-up to September 26 saw an outpouring of support for the demand. More than 2,600 faculty and staff signed a petition demanding that CUNY ensure that adjunct health insurance would continue, while close to 5,000 emails were sent to then-Chancellor Goldstein and the CUNY Board of Trustees. Adjuncts spoke out about how vital health insurance was to them, and how their lives would be affected if their coverage was curtailed.

On September 26, 500 PSC members turned out for a militant demonstration outside the trustees’ meeting at Baruch College. Part-timers and full-timers were both well represented. “It boils down to the issue of fairness,” Yunzhong Shu, an associate professor of Chinese at Queens College, told Clarion. “Half of our courses are taught by adjuncts.”

“‘Let them die’ is not an appropriate stance for CUNY’s upper-level administration to take in regard to half of its faculty,” declared Jane Weiss, an assistant professor of English at KCC who had worked for 16 years as an adjunct at Hunter College.

Inside the meeting, PSC activists sang union songs (“Health care is a human right, we shall not be moved!”) and presented the trustees with the signed petitions. When the union delegation came back outside, they had good news: Chancellor Goldstein had announced that CUNY would propose the necessary funds in its upcoming State budget request.

“It’s the first time CUNY has ever moved on our demand on adjunct health care,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told the hundreds who rallied outside. But Bowen cautioned that convincing CUNY to include adjunct health insurance in its budget request was only a start: “The next step is to hold them to that priority, to insist that it’s funded by the State.”

The union kept up the pressure in November, when dozens of members testified on adjunct health care at a public hearing of the Board of Trustees. “As an adjunct professor who had thyroid cancer three years ago, and is still in need of regular medical check-ups, health insurance is crucial for me,” Alexandra Story, an adjunct lecturer at BMCC, told the trustees. “On the wages I make as an adjunct, I am just able to barely get by as a single mother of two boys, ages 5 and 8. The loss of my health insurance would be crippling to me.” It’s a matter of simple justice, she emphasized: “We put in the same work for each course as the full-time professors. We deserve to have our health needs treated equally.”

Political Pressure

As the new year began, and with it the annual budget battle in Albany, PSC members met with more than 100 State legislators in a grassroots lobbying effort, pressing them to support CUNY’s budget request. Members and union leaders testified at Albany budget hearings, and thousands of letters were sent to State Senators and Assemblymembers.

When the State budget was finalized on March 30, 2012, the funds required for a transition to a more stable system for adjunct health coverage were included in CUNY’s budget allocation. The full-court press since September had had its effect.

But the struggle was not over. The next stage was negotiations with CUNY management over the transition to a more sustainable health insurance program. The union’s goal was simple: continuation of comparable health insurance with no break in coverage. But making that happen required negotiations over a thousand details. Even though CUNY had followed through on the joint effort to secure funding, these talks were not always smooth and the bargaining was prolonged.

The PSC held a question-and-answer session for covered adjuncts at its Union Hall in August 2012. While those attending appreciated the chance to learn more about the state of the talks, union negotiators could not answer their most pressing question: when will there be a final agreement?

Existing adjunct health insurance coverage was extended twice in September and October as the talks entered their final stages. The funding in CUNY’s new budget made this possible, but both sides knew that this was not a long-term solution. Transition to City coverage was essential to the program’s future.

CUNY and PSC reached agreement on details of that transition in October, and those who had protested outside the trustees’ meeting the year before felt ready to celebrate. While the process had not been easy, the two sides had stuck with it and reached a solid agreement. But the final stage of the process, securing City approval, unexpectedly became a stubborn obstacle.

“After years of refusing our demand, CUNY’s administration became an unwavering ally in talks with the City,” Bowen told Clarion. “CUNY’s support was essential to our eventual success.”

The joint union-management agreement at CUNY was put to the test when it collided with the Bloomberg administration’s decision to put its labor relations in the deep freeze. By 2013, every single municipal union was working under an expired contract, the first time in NYC history that this had occurred. With the City demanding deep concessions from the unions on their health care coverage, while offering little or nothing in return, the mayor’s advisors refused to act.

The NYC Health Benefits Program is a massive plan, covering more than one million employees, retirees and their families. As such, it can realize economies of scale and exert far greater bargaining power over costs than a small plan like the 1,900-member health insurance the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund administered for CUNY adjuncts. A plan based on per-capita funding was also more rational, stable and sustainable to manage the finances of health care for the adjunct faculty on whom CUNY students depend. But none of these arguments swayed the Bloomberg administration.

The impact on CUNY adjuncts was severe. As talks with Bloomberg’s representatives became drawn out, a series of short-term extensions of existing coverage occurred, with each expiration date becoming a focus for adjunct anxiety. When it became clear that discussions with the Bloomberg administration were going nowhere, the Welfare Fund trustees adopted a 14-month extension for the current coverage, through June 30 of this year.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office January 1, he faced a backlog of more than 150 expired contracts and other unresolved labor agreements. The issue of adjunct health insurance at CUNY was on that list, but the largest City unions, like the United Federation of Teachers or District Council 37, were City Hall’s first concern.

After one last extension to September 30, and with the critical support of the new mayor, agreement was finally reached at the end of July. “This is the hardest negotiation the PSC has had in the 14 years that I have been in leadership,” Bowen told Clarion. “It shouldn’t have been so hard. We worked with CUNY to find the funding, CUNY management became a strong partner in the effort, and it makes sense to avail of the economy of scale. Besides that, it was the right thing to do.”

“The Welfare Fund staff and trustees have been heroic,” Bowen added. “The trustees protected the financial solvency of the Fund, but never lost sight of the human needs of adjuncts.”

Though it is a major step toward equity, the change does not give eligible adjuncts full equality in health coverage with full-time CUNY employees. Family coverage remains more expensive, as eligible adjuncts must still pay the full additional cost for covered family members. And while the existence of adjunct health insurance is now assured, individual adjuncts can still unexpectedly lose coverage if they have a course cancelled at the last minute – even if they have worked at CUNY for 20 years.

“Ideally, we would like to have won even more – family coverage, a shorter waiting period to qualify, coverage into retirement,” Bowen told members in August. “Those goals remain for future campaigns.” (In current bargaining, for example, the union’s demand on adjunct job security could help protect long-serving adjuncts from sudden loss of their health insurance.)

“For now,” Bowen concluded, “we can celebrate what we have won together, and support each other in the union’s upcoming campaign for a fair contract for all.”

While it does not end the need to struggle, the agreement to move adjunct health coverage to the City Health Benefits Program stands as one of the union’s biggest victories, said the PSC’s Steve London: “Working together, union members achieved a result we had often been told was impossible.”

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PSC Members Reflect on the Campaign

We owe this victory to the persistence of the union. I am a transplant patient, and need medication to stay alive. I also needed surgery this June, and I was terrified when I learned that adjunct medical was extended just through June 30 – beyond that was uncertain. Thankfully, we were able to finally ensure that adjuncts get access to medical care without
fear of losing it in the future. I feel very strongly that it’s something we should have had permanently and now we do.

Renee Mizrahi
Adjunct Lecturer, English
Kingsborough Community College

Four years ago when our health insurance was in danger, it was very, very upsetting to me. I did a lot of price shopping, and at the time I think the minimum for outside coverage was $800 a month. I panicked. But it’s now permanent. You don’t have to worry, and that’s an amazing feeling. I’m proud to have been part of the campaign to keep adjunct health insurance.
Bonnie Lucas
Adjunct Lecturer, Art Education Program
City College

When the news broke that it was a done deal, I was at a party with other faculty. The mood in the room was ecstatic. The news came on someone’s device, and when it was announced, there was a loud cheer and a round of drinks to the PSC. There really was a sense of what we’d just accomplished. Both part-timers and full-timers realized that we’d done something big.
Michael Batson
Adjunct Lecturer, History and Women’s Studies
College of Staten Island

I wouldn’t have a strong program without outstanding adjunct faculty in school counseling. Too often CUNY adjunct faculty don’t have full-time jobs and cobble together 3 or 4 classes at different campuses, constantly on the run; it’s beyond critical to have secure health insurance. Since almost half of CUNY instruction is done by contingent faculty, the least we can do is ensure their health care is maintained as they often have few other resources in the country’s most expensive metro area.
Stuart Chen-Hayes
Associate Professor, School Counseling
Lehman College, School of Education

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