California College & Union Drop the Ball on Health Insurance Fund for Part-Timers

Part-time faculty members at Palomar College say they’re terrified of losing health insurance since the college has depleted the money it set aside for that benefit this year.

The dispute reflects the tense labor negotiations under way at the college, and touches on the role and rights of part-time instructors.

The college allots $138,000 for health benefits for its part-time faculty but spent nearly all of that during the fall semester, said John Tortarolo, Palomar’s vice president for human resources.

“We went to the faculty and said, ‘There’s a problem,'” Tortarolo said. “‘We’re willing to cover the shortfall in the short term, but you need to meet us partway.'”

Teresa Laughlin, the lead negotiator for the Palomar Faculty Federation, said the union was willing to negotiate changes to the benefits but received little notice of the shortfall.

“Our problem is not that we don’t want to negotiate, but we don’t have time,” she said.

In emails and blog posts, professors expressed outrage about the matter.

Some instructors said they feared that loss of health insurance would leave them with serious, untreated health problems, while others decried the disparity between full-time and part-time benefits. One suggested staging a benefit concert to make up the shortfall.

The college agreed in 2006 to pay up to $138,000 to cover 50 percent of insurance costs for part-time faculty who taught at least three classes for three out of four semesters—a benefit that Tortarolo said was unique among community colleges at that time.

Although the college employs nearly 1,000 part-time instructors, only 25 to 30 enrolled, Tortarolo said.

In 2009, however, the college agreed to pay 75 percent of costs, and the number of participants nearly doubled. This fiscal year, the fund ran short.

Tortarolo said the college addressed that gap in labor negotiations with faculty. The administration proposed paying up to $45,000 for health benefits for the spring semester, but cutting the college’s share of insurance premiums to 50 percent after that.

The union countered that the college should simply pay what’s needed this spring and hash out future benefit changes through collective bargaining.

A post on the “PFF Faculty Lounge” blog described the administration’s proposal as an example of “mean-spirited and hard-ball tactics” aimed at forcing concessions from faculty.

“They are holding the fate of … our colleagues hostage in order to force us to accept a bad proposal,” the blog post stated.

Tortarolo said those comments reflect a misunderstanding of the problem.

“We’ve never threatened to take any health benefits away, and we’ve never threatened to cut them off,” he said.

The matter hit a sore spot with faculty, opening a debate about fairness at campuses where full-time and part-time instructors teach side by side, under sharply different working conditions.

This semester, the college employs 922 part-time faculty, who teach 45 percent of course hours, college spokeswoman Laura Gropen said. The 268 full-time faculty teach the other 55 percent.

Palomar College provides 100 percent of health, vision and dental coverage to full-time employees, including lifetime health benefits for some retirees, officials said. The cost for that coverage runs between $13,586 for a Kaiser plan to $18,378 for a PPO, according to numbers that Tortarolo provided.

The college’s health care costs for those services totaled nearly $21.2 million for last fiscal year —- nearly triple what the college paid a decade earlier.

By comparison, the cost of insurance to part-time instructors is insignificant and shouldn’t be subject to cuts, faculty said.

While some part-time faculty teach a single class and receive health insurance elsewhere, others cobble together a full-time income through various part-time teaching jobs and sorely need the health coverage, Laughlin said.

“I find this a pretty egregious lack of equity,” political science professor Peter Bowman told the college governing board Tuesday.

Tortarolo said the college aims “to balance the high cost of health care with making it available and affordable.”

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