Bennington College administration, staff in negotiations over health insurance

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BENNINGTON — Staff members and administration at Bennington College are currently at odds over proposed changes to employee health plans, according to student and union representatives.

Kaseem Moultrie, recording secretary and organizer from the Service Employees International Union's Albany office, said the dispute began over the summer, when the college proposed to enroll employees into a higher deductible plan than that which they are currently enrolled. The current plan is a $1,500 per year deductible for individual with a $500 Health Spending Account to offset the out-of-pocket cost to employees, leaving a balance of $1,000 out of pocket. The family and two-people plan deductible is currently $3,000 and the Health Spending Account covers $1,000 of the deductible, leaving the employees to pay $2,000. The college's new health plan proposal is $2,500 deductible for individual with a proposed Health Spending Account of $1,500, leaving a balance of $1,000 out-of-pocket cost on the employees. The family and the two-people plan has a $5,000 deductible with a proposed Heath Spending Account of $3,000, leaving the employees with $2,000 out-of-pocket on the deductible. Once the deductible is met, the employees medical services are paid at 100 percent.

"Many of the employees have expressed that the cost of the out-of-pocket expenses are unaffordable, as they are barely making ends meet on the wages they are paid at the college," said Moultrie.

He said the union has proposed to keep the current plan, and to reduce the Health Spending Account college contribution in subsequent years. The union has also asked for a wage increase of 9 percent. The union is currently waiting for the college to respond to a request for dates to reconvene negotiations. Nicholas J. D'Ambrosio, Jr. is representing the college in the negotiations.

On the last day of the negotiations, Sept. 16, a large group of students protested on the lawn outside of the Cricket Hill Barn while bargaining was ongoing.

"The faculty and non-unionized staff are very upset," said student organizer Audra Wirtanen. "The college chose to implement this to keep institutional costs the same as insurance goes up. The students are not happy because we feel that this does not represent the values that we are taught here, and the values that we choose to represent by coming to a place like this to learn. Bennington College should treat their workers fairly, this small community thrives when everyone is thriving. We believe that Bennington College has a legacy of progressive action and work, and that we should be a leader in the nation as a small-budget school, making sure that health insurance is affordable and helpful to all."

The students in attendance at the rally released a statement, which read, "Community at Bennington means everything. At a school with only 700 students, it is an ignorant choice to dehumanize and forget about the people that do things for us every day. It IS our business that our faculty, non-unionized staff, and unionized staff are going to be struggling to afford to take care of themselves in the most fundamental way. We are all humans here. Why is one life less valuable than another? This issue calls upon the students as an aid in representing Bennington as a community that cares, and as a leader in the nation — setting an example in the treatment of all workers and their rights as deductible costs increase. This movement started because Bennington's students believe that Bennington College is a fair, progressive institution and would like to see our values upheld in all of the college's practices. We students are therefore taking a stand, giving a larger voice to those that may not be as loud. We are the best bet in changing this for the people around us – for the people that care so much about our education — just as much as we do."

Across the state, educational institutions have been struggling to keep up with the rising costs of health insurance. At recent contract negotiations between the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and its teachers, the two sides reached an impasse when the administration proposed switching to a new set of plans that teachers felt would shift the cost from the school to the employees (After mediation, the two sides agreed to keep the same plans for the next two years). Officials from the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union recently announced that they are facing a budget increase of 7.9 percent from health insurance costs alone.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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