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Daily Egyptian

Health insurance costs could double for SIU employees

(File photo)

(File photo)

By Marnie Leonard

SIU union leaders are worried one of the most attractive aspects of university employment — good health care benefits — could be in jeopardy.

At issue is the November ruling by the Illinois Labor Relations Board that contract negotiations between Illinois and the state council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees were at impasse. The ruling was a win for Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose administration has been in contentious bargaining meetings with the union since its state contract ended in July 2015.

An impasse means the governor chooses the terms of the contract, and the union can either accept those terms or strike.

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David Johnson, president of the SIU Faculty Association, said those contract terms could potentially “put [state employees] through hell.”

With declining salaries and “lousy” pension plans, Johnson said increasing the costs for health care benefits could be a sign for prospective or current employees at the university to find work in another state.

“With the state in financial crisis, there are already a lot of motives for people to look elsewhere for employment,” Johnson said. “This would be yet another one.”

A lawsuit was filed by AFSCME on Wednesday in attempt to block the decision and bring Rauner back to the bargaining table, but that measure is expected to only stall temporarily. The complaint alleges the governor failed to respond to attempts by the union to continue negotiations and bargain in good faith.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks at the Illinois State Fair on Aug. 17, 2016, in Springfield. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks at the Illinois State Fair on Aug. 17, 2016, in Springfield. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

On Wednesday, nearly three dozen Illinois lawmakers held a press conference to urge the governor to resume negotiations with the union. This group of legislators was made up of Republicans and Democrats, because they said the impasse is a “nonpartisan” issue for state employees.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly called the ILRB decision “fair for taxpayers and state employees,” saying in a Nov. 15 statement that it would save taxpayers $3 billion over a four-year period.

Following the decision by the state’s labor relations board, SIU President Randy Dunn said in a statement that proposed contract terms between the state and its largest public employee union could cause a 100 percent increase to university employee healthcare costs within the next year. Though the union does not directly represent most university employees, the health care benefits are based off of the same state plan.

Over the next three years, this would mean a $10,000 increase in individual employee health care premiums, said Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME.

Lindall said a typical university employee pays around $3,100 a year for health insurance. The first year of the contract under Rauner’s terms would double that cost in the first year, and raise it to $7,500 from $6,200 incrementally over two years.

Ami Ruffing, president of the Association of Civil Service Employees, said some members of her union will likely be forced to switch to plans with lower premiums and higher deductibles, which she called a “catch-22.”

“You pay less monthly, yes, but you just have to hope that nobody in your family gets seriously sick,” Ruffing said.

She said civil service employees, who are the lowest paid permanent full-time employees on campus, face disproportionately negative consequences to the rising costs.

Trish Cochran, a member of ACSE’s executive council, said the potential impact is significantly more for employees who have family health insurance plans that cost more. For a parent, she said, it’s a tough decision to switch to a health insurance plan with less coverage.

“You just never know what’s going to happen,” said Cochran, an admissions and records officer at the university and mother of three. “That’s what insurance is for, right? The things you don’t forsee.”

The faculty union agreed in its most recent contract negotiations to receive no pay raises through 2018. Though they have to start out with the plan the state offers, Johnson said the faculty association could look into negotiating a university add-on to the state health insurance plan with the SIU administration.

“We didn’t enter negotiations with the expectation of getting a big cut in health care benefits,” Johnson said. “That essentially amounts to a big pay cut.”

The university could chip in voluntarily to supplement premium payments or come to a collective bargaining agreement with campus unions if they so choose, Johnson said.

But with the university being “broke,” Johnson said this largely depends on the state budget the university receives.

Ruffing said the ACME is still negotiating its new contract with the university because the administration is pushing for the union to agree to no pay raises as well.

“That’s a double whammy,” Ruffing said. “You’re not going to get any raises and you’re going to be paying a whole lot more money for health insurance.”

AFSCME leaders continue to weigh the possibility of a strike for the first time in the union’s history. That would lead to state employees going without paychecks and the shutdown of the state’s social services.

The decision to strike would be made once a written ruling is issued from the board, but Lindall said no one knows when the ruling will come. Normally, he said, it could take months.

“Nothing about this particular issue has been normal,” Lindall said. “It could be any day now.”

Because AFSCME represents few employees at SIU, Johnson said a strike would not significantly impact university operations. But standard practice would be for campus unions to show support by walking picket lines and bringing food and other necessities to picketers.

But Johnson said a strike is not something anyone takes lightly — and it could be risky against someone like Rauner, who isn’t afraid to “play hard-ball.”

Staff writer Marnie Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @marsuzleo.

To stay up to date with all your SIU news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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